Geoffrey Starks' story took place more than a decade ago, but the basic message still holds true for the newest commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission.
The Kansas City native was at a barbershop and got into a friendly debate with others there – “about sports, about the Chiefs.” Starks suggested everyone go home, look up online and see who's right, but then the room went quiet.
“It quickly became apparent to me I was the only one with broadband in my apartment,” Starks said, speaking at Friday's meeting in Blue Springs hosted by U.S. Representative Emanuel Cleaver II to discuss Missouri’s rural and urban broadband divide.
While such a scenario in that barbershop likely wouldn't be the case now in Kansas City, too many people in Missouri's rural areas still lack access to high-speed internet, and Starks said his job with the FCC is to make sure no community gets left behind as federal and state funds are granted for broadband expansion.
Whereas 100 percent of the city of St. Louis and 98 percent of Jackson County have access to high-speed internet, only 0.3 percent of residents in Schuyler County on the northern border and 0.8 percent in Ozark County on the southern border have such access, according to Broadband Now. In all, the FCC Broadband Progress Report shows that about 20 percent of Missourians, 1.25 million people, lack high-speed access – a majority of those in rural communities. Geographically, 61 percent of the state's land mass doesn't have broadband access.
“Missouri ranks 41st in high-speed internet access; we've got to do better,” Starks said. “Now, it's my problem; it's our problem.”
“(Companies) are going to have to start building out more and more in rural communities.”
When the FCC last summer allocated nearly $1.5 billion to 45 states over the course of 10 years to preserve and expand wireless coverage in rural areas, Missouri secured about 17 percent of that at $254.77 million, the most of any state. Also, the state legislature created the Missouri Rural Broadband Fund within the Department of Economic Development for matching grants but needs to financially support that fund.
Directors or representatives from the state Agriculture and Economic Development departments, the University of Missouri Extension Office in Blue Springs and the Missouri Farm Bureau also took part in Friday's public meeting, discussing how broadband expansion can't be a siloed effort around the state.
“No community in the United States of America should have difficulty being participants in this technology,” Cleaver said, adding that almost any job application nowadays involves an online application. “When you think of rural communities (not having access to broadband), it's not right.”
Starks and others said broadband can improve “telehealth” or “telemedicine,” allowing people in more remote areas to communicate with doctors or specialists sometimes hours away.
Luke Holtschneider, deputy director of the Economic Development Department, said the lack of broadband very much contributes to the “brain drain” of students and young adults from the state.
“The impact that broadband has on economic growth in Missouri is vital,” he said.
Said Shatomi Luster-Edward of MU Extension, “Once you have access, you have opportunity, and once you have opportunity you can have growth.”
Chris Chinn, the state's agriculture director, noted that many farmers have records stored in the cloud, and some have to drive off site to access them.
“For precision agriculture, we need that,” she said.
When companies build out, Chinn said, it's important to think big picture.
“Don't build for what they need today,” she said. “Build for what they'll need in the future.”