Published February 17th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
A new initiative from one of Missouri’s biggest internet service providers promises to bring super fast broadband speeds to areas where they are desperately needed.
Charter Communications, which provides Spectrum service, recently announced a $5 billion initiative that will focus on broadband buildout in 24 states, reaching an estimated 1 million unserved customer locations. The buildout will include $1.2 billion in Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) money that was awarded to the company in late 2020.
More than $48 million of RDOF funding will help bring projects to 61,524 locations across 33 Missouri counties.
While it’s a welcome step in the right direction, particularly in the areas that will receive new service, there’s a long way to go in connecting Missouri. An estimated 780,000 Missourians do not have access to broadband internet speeds, according to BroadbandNow. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need to increase internet access across the state.
Most notably for people who will receive expanded internet access, the new connections won’t just offer average internet speeds. Every new location will have the capacity for gigabit speeds, which are about 40 times faster than the Federal Communications Commission’s current broadband definition of download speeds of 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of 3 megabits per second.
“The network Charter will build in these rural areas will offer 1 (gigabit per second) high–speed broadband access to all newly served customer locations with starting speeds of 200 (megabits per second), enabling consumers to engage in remote learning, work, telemedicine and other applications that require high-bandwidth, low-latency connectivity,” according to a company spokesperson.
Johnson County, Missouri, will receive the most locations and money from Charter’s initiative, with more than $12 million in RDOF funding going to nearly 6,500 locations. According to BroadbandNow, 61% of Johnson County residents now have access to broadband speeds.
“This is positive news for Johnson County, Missouri,” Johnson County Economic Development Corporation executive director Tracy Brantner said in an email. “Like most rural areas, the availability of providers, reliability, and affordability of broadband for Johnson County residents and businesses is critical to our economic health.
“With the availability of broadband, Johnson Countians are able to remote work, home school, and access telehealth and other important services from their homes. With the availability of broadband, businesses may have the ability to expand and provide additional products and services that had been previously limited by capacity.”
In the past, larger providers have been hesitant to reach the “last mile” to households that require individual build-out to serve their specific home, because it is not financially viable for the company. However, with the addition of government money, companies can reach those individual homes that need service.
“I would say projects like this are possible, but they are more likely if you have a mix of funding,” said Jessica Denson, communications director for ConnectedNation. “When you deal with rural areas, you’ve got a very heavy lift when it comes to investment in laying down new fiber, or putting it in towers to reach that last mile.”
Charter called the project a multi-year initiative. According to RDOF, companies will have to meet certain buildout requirements over a six-year period.
Tim Arbeiter, director of the Missouri Office of Broadband Development, said Charter is still awaiting full approval from the FCC, and expects buildout to begin within six months once companies get the green light.
In a news release, the company stated that the timely execution of the projects will depend on external factors such as pole permitting.
“The more cooperation we have with the pole owners and utility companies, the faster we can connect these communities with high-speed internet services,” said Tom Rutledge, Chairman and CEO of Charter Communications, in a statement.
The project is expected to expand the existing construction organization within the company and require 2,000 new employees nationwide to do the buildout.
Some providers have voiced concern with the RDOF funding.
A BroadbandBreakfast article covering the Incompas 2021 Policy Summit cited two broadband executives who were concerned with the low amount of money given to smaller providers who focus on bridging the digital divide in their state. One of these companies was Kansas-based IdeaTek Telecom. Daniel Friesen, IdeaTek’s managing member and innovations officer, said he was confused with his company missing out on big contracts awarded to other providers.
“We were scratching our heads through the process,” Friesen said in the article. “We really weren’t a major awardee. Obviously it was disappointing for us.”
Charter’s initiative will not provide coverage to Kansas.
According to Denson with ConnectedNation, there are three steps in providing internet service to unserved people: access, adoption and usage.
Access is getting people broadband speeds, adoption is making sure it is affordable for people to use, and usage is about educating people on how to use the new connection. All three are vital to making sure unserved areas can effectively use the internet for their daily needs.
“It’s important because somebody might have access to high speeds, but then they’re paying three times what you’re paying in an urban area, that is the challenge,” Denson said.
Charter will offer the same Spectrum plans to these new areas that are available to all of their customers. The lowest one being $49.99 a month at 200 megabits per second download speeds.
Denson says the project will help rural populations that desperately need access, especially during the pandemic.
“When you talk rural, we are talking millions of people who are left out,” she said. “That tells you rural and low-income people really need to be addressed.”
Jacob Douglas covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.