Missouri BEAD funds a testament to underserved population

Missouri was among the lucky winners of the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program, receiving the third highest allocation at $1.74 billion.

But whether that amount will be more than enough or just right to cover all unserved and underserved locations is “the ultimate question,” said BJ Tanksley, director of Missouri’s Office of Broadband Development.

“It’s humbling and extremely exciting at the same time,” he told Fierce. “I think the thing about this is it also is a call to us, there’s just a lot of work to be done across the state.”

Tanksley said while Missouri “always predicted” it would receive a relatively high BEAD allotment, the state found over $300 million was allocated due to “the proportion of extreme high-cost locations.”

He estimates roughly 300,000 locations in Missouri are “still lacking quality broadband service” and a “good portion” of those are considered high-cost areas, particularly in the south-central part of the state where the Mark Twain National Forest is located.

“You have large areas of public land mixed with lighter populations between those public lands,” said Tanksley. “We don’t have necessarily mountains but it’s got lots of hills and they’re all heavily wooded for the most part. So those areas will be tough to get to.”

Other areas that will likely be difficult to reach are the Western and Northern parts of the state, closer to the Iowa border.

“Where I take my lead from that is where we’ve received applications for our ARPA funded programs, and those are areas where we received fewer applications than others,” he said.

As for how providers are dealing with the terrain constraints, electric and telephone cooperatives for instance have access to the necessary infrastructure. Other ISPs have opted for wireless technologies in areas “where the topography allows it to be a good use.”

“And then [for] some of them it just takes more funding,” Tanksley said. “We funded one in a lightly populated area in Northern Missouri, and the relative cost of that project was pretty high. But when you looked at it, without some public funding, those locations probably don’t receive service.”

In terms of BEAD planning, Missouri is currently working on its five-year action plan and state challenge process, with Tanksley noting his office has had “communication back and forth” with the NTIA on the latter.

Both the challenge process and five-year action plan will likely be ready for public comment at the end of August. Whereas the initial proposal, which all states must submit by the end of the year, is “on pace” to be open for comment in early October.

Bolstering public engagement

“We want to be mindful of everyone’s time but we also want to have that public engagement,” said Tanksley. “We were very happy with the amount of public engagement we’ve received through our ARPA program and also through our BEAD planning.”

Other forms of engagement include monthly webinars, in which the state broadband office hears feedback from citizens, community providers and local leaders.

“We think that really is vital,” he added.

Tanksley’s office also worked with the University of Missouri to conduct a targeted statewide survey. Additionally, the university has helped the state connect community anchor institutions (CAIs) as well as with broadband mapping efforts.

“They did use some of their weather and climate experts to talk about and help with some of the pieces of making sure the infrastructure that we deploy is ready for what Missouri’s climate could look like over the next several years,” said Tanksley.

He explained Missouri of late has been impacted by “extreme weather events,” like floods and tornadoes, so it’s important to ensure infrastructure is prepared for those things.

“It’s probably not something our providers weren’t currently already planning for,” said Tanksley. “It was one of the requirements of the [BEAD] plan, but also it was interesting and valuable to us to let outside experts weigh in on that.”