Sen. Roy Blunt spoke of his goal to increase broadband service to rural Missouri during his March. 2 press conference at the Ralls County Electric Cooperative office in New London.

Sen. Roy Blunt spoke of his goal to increase broadband service to rural Missouri during his March 2 press conference at the Ralls County Electric Cooperative office in New London.

Blunt said 51 percent of rural Missouri does not have broadband service, compared to 35 percent of rural areas nationwide.

RCEC General Manager Lynn Hodges and the board members said RCEC provides broadband to all its members and works with Ralls County cities who are seeking to add it.

Hodges said the RCEC has had fiber optic broadband since 2010. “We can only serve our members,” he added, because a city with more than 1,500 population may not be served by the cooperative.

Hodges told Blunt that offering broadband was a “deep plunge” for the board.

“We were the first distribution co-op in Missouri, and we are still building. … Most of our fiber optic cables are overhead on our existing utility poles,” he said.

Hodges said many rural residents have asked why more broadband isn’t available, and why Perry was among the first Ralls County cities seeking broadband.

“Access to the city utility poles is always an issue, and the Perry City Council approved allowing us access to their utility poles,” Hodges said. “We started construction in Perry two weeks ago. It will take about three months.”

Noting that RCEC can't provide electric services to Perry but can provide internet, he said, “Residents of Perry will get it through Ralls Technologies,” which also serves the Ralls County schools. This company also provides it to RCEC.

Chris Chinn, Missouri Director of Agriculture, said broadband is the gold standard, but “1.2 million people in Missouri don't have access.” She added that as a farmer, she knows how important technology is for modern farming.

Blunt said as a member of the Senate Commerce and Appropriations Committees, he helped lead efforts to end the digital divide that has left half of rural Missourians without broadband. He said a funding bill was recently signed, providing $550 million for a rural broadband pilot grant and loan program that focuses resources on expanding high speed internet to areas that need it most.

Blunt said that in August 2018, the FCC announced Missouri will receive nearly $255 million over 10 years to expand rural broadband, and Missouri will receive about 17 percent of the total amount awarded nationwide, the most of any state.

State Rep. Louis Riggs said he has filed legislation in Jefferson City, working at the state level “to try to make sure the money stays in Missouri.”

Hodges agreed with Blunt and Riggs that “the federal dollars are critical for us to continue the expansion of fiber optics. … The demand is out there.”

bev.darr@courierpost.com