NOT SO long ago, high-speed internet connections were considered something of a luxury.

That’s not the case any more. Broadband is a necessity as more people work from home and students take virtual classes. Some health care consultations may be done online. High-speed data is vital to business, industry, academia and homeowners.

Yes, the COVID-19 pandemic has made everyone more aware of the need for high-speed internet, but this nation already was in need of better online infrastructure well before the coronavirus led to so many changes.

Ralls County has a great example of the work that’s needed to boost high-speed connections. The successes there could offer valuable insight for other rural counties.

Ralls County Electric Cooperative has been running a fiber network to homes, businesses, schools and community centers since 2010. The cooperative’s foresight put that area ahead of most rural areas, but the expense and scope of the broadband system had left several holes in the coverage area.

RCEC CEO and Manager Lynn Hodges, credits state Rep. Louis Riggs, R-Hannibal, for being a longtime proponent of increasing broadband access throughout the state and within the RCEC district. In addition, the Ralls County Commission, Pike County Commissioner Bill Allen and Center Mayor Dennis McMillen worked for the expansion of the fiber network.

“We used to think of essential services as water, sewer and telephone. The internet service is now part of that basic, fundamental infrastructure that folks are demanding,” Hodges said.

Riggs worked with U.S. senators Roy Blunt and Josh Hawley in November 2019 to establish a competitive grant program, and he was instrumental in a bill signed into law by Gov. Mike Parson in July, ensuring broadband project commitments are fulfilled throughout the state.

At the federal level, the U.S. Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed the CARES Act last year to address the pandemic. Billions of dollars were sent to states and counties in response to disruptions caused by the coronavirus.

Ralls County Commission members allocated about $1.2 million in CARES Act funds, allocating almost all of the money for public projects with the Mark Twain Regional Council of Governments handling applications. Their goal from the start was to spend a minimal amount on county government and earmark funds for the taxing agencies in need across the area. Later, the commissioners talked about the need for remote learning, teleheath doctor visits and residents working from home.

Hodges said the funds allowed Ralls Technologies crews to build out the fiber network to neighborhoods outside of their electric service area, including Sunset Hills, Carrs Lane, Rainbow Ridge and Cody Drive south of Hannibal. Everyone in that area could purchase a gigabit internet connection, which is almost unheard of in a rural area.

The fiber optic system also has been expanded at Center and to the Frankford School District in Pike County.

Ralls County is one of only three counties in Missouri with Wi-Fi or fiber in more than 90% of the county.

Missouri’s Emergency Broadband Investment Program is working.

The partnership between Ralls County Electrical Cooperative, state and federal lawmakers and leaders from local counties and cities also is working. We commend everyone who played a part in this success story.

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