Electrical co-ops, DRA will help bring fiber broadband internet to rural areas

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Thousands of rural Southeast Missourians will soon have access to fiber broadband internet, thanks in part to large investments by two electrical cooperatives as well as a $1 million public funding boost by the Delta Regional Authority.

Cape Girardeau, Scott and Bollinger are three of eight Southeast Missouri counties expected to see improvements via a $15.5 million investment from two electric cooperatives, the authority announced Wednesday.

Southeast Missouri Electric Cooperative, of Sikeston, Missouri, will build a fiber network expected to reach more than 3,300 residents and multiple employers in the service territory that includes the aforementioned counties plus Mississippi, New Madrid and Stoddard. DRA is contributing $250,000 to Southeast Missouri Electric Cooperative's effort, according to a news release, with another $8.5 million being invested by other partners. SEMO Electric has committed $40 million to the project, the release stated.

CEO Sean Vanslyke said Wednesday that Southeast Missouri Electric Cooperative has been developing fiber broadband plans since 2013. The first connections were made in spring of this year. He said the DRA grant will help pay for "fiber huts" that cost roughly $120,000 each. The cooperative serves some 16,000 homes, farms and businesses. To complete the project, Vanslyke said, the co-op will need to build out 16 substations; three already have been built, and nearly 1,000 people have already subscribed to the fiber optic service in the first nine months of operation.

"We get called or stopped at the grocery store," Vanslyke said. "And people just ask when are we going to get fiber." Vanslyke said the co-op hopes to have the project done in a couple of years. He said the co-op will continue to seek federal funding for the project.

Farther south in the Bootheel, Pemiscot-Dunklin Electric Cooperative is extending broadband in Dunklin, Pemiscot and parts of New Madrid counties, with an expected reach of 7,500 homes, plus farms and businesses. DRA is contributing $750,000 to that region. The Co-op estimates it will cost $30 million to complete the initiative.

Broadband access has been identified as a major need for rural communities in Missouri and beyond. High-speed internet is needed for businesses and schools to remain competitive, officials have said.

"Having access to broadband is as important as the telephone was to jobs and education 70 years ago," U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-MO, said in the release. "These DRA investments recognize that the definition of community infrastructure has to include broadband access for everything from homes and businesses to hospitals, schools and libraries. I'm committed to finding new avenues, like this one, to end the digital divide that has left nearly half of Missourians in rural areas without access to broadband."

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson said broadband expansion was a major priority when he took over as governor in June. Shortly after becoming governor, Parson visited the Southeast Missouri State University farm in Gordonville, where he said "we have to do something about infrastructure" in Missouri, including broadband.

In a news release issued by the DRA on Wednesday, Parson praised DRA's contribution, adding broadband access "will improve the lives of rural residents and businesses in these eight counties." Parson said broadband will have economic benefits, including job opportunities.

Congressman Jason Smith said the broadband expansion will help farmers "to be connected to the global markets and encourage business investments in the Bootheel as we bring our infrastructure into the 21st century."

DRA is a federal/state partnership established by Congress in 2000 to help economic efforts through strategic investments. It covers 252 counties and parishes in eight states.


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