Legislative column

For several years my Legislative colleagues and I have advocated for expansion of broadband and faster internet speeds in rural areas of Missouri. Late last year the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began offering funding under the “Connect America” program. This program uses an FCC formula to determine areas of the country where the cost to provide broadband does not make economic sense for carriers. The state has no say in what areas are chosen for the program, nor does the Legislature.

These funds make it possible for expansion to happen without the costs being passed on to consumers. It is amazing to me that consumers currently pay taxes on their cell phone services only to have the federal government turn around and charge providers for funds received from the federal government to provide this expansion program. This practice hurts the consumer because less expansion is available due to being taxed twice, which makes less funds available.

By accepting Connect America funds, carriers are required to provide and operate broadband to those high-cost areas where consumers don’t have choices of broadband providers or broadband service available. It is not feasible to provide this access to all rural areas, but many more will be covered with this expansion.

I’m happy to report three Missouri carriers have accepted a statewide commitment to make broadband available in their service areas to just under 190,000 locations in rural Missouri. CenturyLink accepted the largest commitment of more than 150,000 households. Windstream and Fairpoint have also accepted the FCC offer. However, even with the Connect America funds, not all consumers will have broadband available under this program.

By accepting the Connect America funds, over the next six years, these carriers will offer broadband at download speeds of at least 10mbps and upload speeds of at least 1mbps to those areas identified by the FCC as high-cost areas. Additionally, they also must offer pricing in rural areas comparable to urban areas in Missouri. The FCC and the Missouri Public Service Commission will verify the expansion to ensure at least 40 percent of these new locations have broadband available by year-end 2017 and 20 percent increased expansion annually thereafter until the obligations are met.

CenturyLink’s 2016 plans call for hundreds of miles of new fiber optic cables to be installed to serve more than 40,000 homes in 80 different communities across rural Missouri. I would like to recognize the SOAR group, which represents a ten-county area for advocating to CenturyLink to ensure the area is treated fairly in the expansion plan.

In my senatorial district, by the end of 2016 CenturyLink will be in the final stages of construction and installation of new equipment in high-cost areas including:

· Cabool, to serve 905 homes with 35 miles of fiber;

· Fordland, to serve 1,950 homes with 28 miles of fiber;

· Mountain View, to serve 1252 homes;

· Thayer to serve 297 homes

· Marshfield, to serve 2,670 homes with 105 miles of fiber; and

CenturyLink will notify impacted consumers when the new broadband service is available. In 2017 CenturyLink will work to add additional exchanges to be completed within the next six years.

Mike Cunningham is a Republican member of the Missouri State Senate, representing District 33. Contact him at 573-751-1882 or www.senate.mo.gov/cunningham

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