Broadband panel looks at future of rural service

Federal port designation for the entire state bordering the Mississippi River also discussed.

BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
PCC EDITOR

QUINCY – A panel of the top rural Internet executives convened Friday in Quincy to talk about the future of rural service in the tri-state area.

The panel convened as part of the 2019 Tri-State Development Summit held at the Oakley Lindsay Center where other issues such as workforce development education, and a Mississippi River Federal Port designation.

The Summit represents 36 counties in Missouri, Illinois, and Iowa combined representing 100s of leaders impacting 700,000 people.

Kristi Ray, executive vice president of the Mt. Pleasant Chamber Alliance, moderated a broadband panel discussion that featured Danville Mutual Telephone Company CEO Tim Fencl, Ralls Technology of New London, Mo.; COO Bob Winsel; and Adams Fiber’s CEO Jim Broemmer of Adam’s County.

The panel said there are continuing mapping concerns with federal Census Block mapping. Broemmer said that mapping can indicate a census block is considered served even if one home in the block has service over the 25/3 threshold which 25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits upload, even if all the others homes in the block don’t have that service.

“There’s certainly a problem with the mapping. The Census block mechanism, and restrictions that are in place, makes it very hard to allocate funding for when you have one house out of 50 homes in the census block being served, and you want to serve those other 49 but you can’t get funding today,” Winsel said.

Fencl said even those FCC maps show a block as covered, he said that just isn’t the case. He said there isn’t a quick fix for the issues facing the rural tri-state area, but the conversations taking place are what will eventually lead to the solution.

“The big thing is to have communities and counties reach out to us,” Fencl said. “the more we talk about an issue, the more education we can share about that issue, the more people are going to understand.”

Fencl said fixes can’t be a band-aid solution. He said four years ago the speeds required were 4/1 and now requirements are 25/3.

“If we go out and try to build a 25/3 network for years from now that criteria is not going to be 25/3 anymore because everything that needs an off/off switch is going to need a connection to the Internet. You’re not going to need 25/3, you’re going to need a 100/100.”

Broemmer said in August the Federal Communication Commission authorized a $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund which will disperse those Universal Service Funds (USFs) as subsidies for rural broadband efforts over the next 10 years. Funds can go to cable broadband providers as well as telecoms.

Broemmer said even that amount won’t fix the issue, but the question is how much of that can be brought to the tri-state area.

“To go after that money, we’ve got to work collectively so we can tell a really good story during that grant writing process,” he said.

Winsel said the key aspect going forward is collaboration and getting officials educated at local, state, and federal levels.

“They may understand it, but have they experienced it, have they been to the guy out there that can’t get service and has to go to McDonalds or whatever WiFi access they can find for the kids to do homework,” he said.

“The more we talk about an issue, the more education we can share on the issue, the more people are going to understand. I encourage all of you to talk to your legislators, federal, state, regional and make sure they understand this is a concern to you.”

Ray said she was reassured by the panel when they talked about the funding options that are out there, and the fact that they talked about trying to work to get some of the money allocated to the tri-state area.

“I was reassured that they already know what they have to do to get it and that it will come directly to them and not through the state,” she said.

“Because that makes that money flow that much faster. It’s reassuring but it takes so long for that process to unfold.”

She said there’s no silver bullet to the concerns that people have right now, but she said when the rural providers understand the problem and are looking at ways to solve the problems, that’s a good start. But the next big question will be how the Internet Service Providers are going to use the money once they get access to it.

“That’s been the million dollar question all along . There’s been funding before. Now, granted that funding has got us to where we are today. It’s just a very, very large problem we’re trying to solve. It’s not a quick fix. People in that room today don’t care about 100 years from now, they care about, ‘Can I get it tonight’.”

Ray said topics like transportation are easier to accomplish because everyone can get behind it, but some of the other issues like workforce development are trickier because groups within the summit area can be at different places.

“That’s the thing about a summit, it’s always a challenge working regionally to find what is that common area,” Ray said.

Port proposal

Lee County Economic Development Group CEO Dennis Fraise said his big takeaway was a discussion on a Mississippi River federal port designation.

“The thing I was really interested in was getting a port designation for the entire area. That whole stretch, I think there’s some real synergies there we can work on and it sounds very doable for us. It’s one of those things these groups are tailored made to deal with,” he said.

The proposed desigation would include all ports along the Mississippi River on Iowa’s side from Dubuque to Keokuk, and the corresponding ports on the Illinois side of the river.

According to 2012 Iowa compiled data, Iowa companies ship more than 4.5 million tons of goods on the Mississippi River, and bring in about 1.25 million tons.

“That’s something I really took away is why don’t we have that because that’s seems to open up federal dollars for all kinds of things including fixing the locks,” he said.

A federal designation which would make the area a top 20 port nationally.

Dana Millard, LCEDG’s project director said the summit creates strong collaborations and helps determine priorities as well as giving insight into what other groups are doing within the area.

“The river has been changing over the past several decades and those projects bring us together as a region,” she said.”

“And being able to work together on things like workforce initiatives and what others are doing to recruit all helps our area grow.”

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