A Federal Communications Commission study concluding Missouri is below the national average in broadband Internet access has been refuted by a subsequent study conducted by the Missouri Public Service Commission. The FCC reported 86.5 percent of Missouri has access to broadband, with 11 percent to 13.5 percent of the population without service or with a slower form of Internet access.
The PSC report found only 1 percent of Missouri is without service and 97 percent of the state’s population has access to multiple broadband providers.
The PSC report was requested by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Consumer Protection, Energy, and the Environment. PSC Chairman Kevin Gunn conducted his own fact-finding research at the behest of the Senate committee.
“We have different levels of broadband deployment just based on how you define broadband,” said Rich Germinder, chief of staff for Sen. Brad Lager (R-Savannah). “Does a wireless card count as broadband accessibility, or does it only count as hardwire?”
Accurate Portrayal Difficult
The reasons for these differences, Gunn said, are varied. According to his report, “Data submitted by providers to state and federal agencies is not consistent. Reporting standards are different for state and federal agencies. Data submitted may not be accurate.”
He later explained, “If you can get to the Internet at certain speeds on a cell-phone card, the FCC doesn’t count that.”
“You may actually have some sort of access to broadband at the minimum upload and download speed,” Gunn said. “We’re not saying it’s good download speeds, we’re just saying it’s the minimum—just about dial-up.”
Germinder said broadband can be anything from the 3G and 4G data network on a cell phone, to a hard wire in-ground, to satellite broadband.
“The biggest problem that we had is getting an accurate portrayal of what our existing infrastructure is,” Germinder said, explaining many companies were reluctant to provide the information for the PSC’s study.
Both Gunn and Germinder said the PSC report does not require immediate response, nor can Missouri’s strapped state budget handle one.
“We don’t really have jurisdiction in broadband,” Gunn said.
The difference in the reports makes broadband legislation that much more difficult. “There is a logistical issue with being 98 percent and being 87 percent served,” Gunn said. “Your legislative and public policy choices are different based on that.”
Gunn added, “I think everyone’s goal is the same: we see where broadband has been deployed can be a real driver for economic development. It’s just not economical right now.”
However, he added, “Broadband doesn’t compete with the cost [of installation]. How do you balance that, and how do you solve that problem?”
Germinder reiterated the complexity of the issue: “When all the federal stimulus dollars came down for broadband deployment, that was an admirable goal,” he said. “But how do you ensure you’re not building redundant infrastructure or putting it in place where it currently exists? Or are you rewarding a business or a provider who has basically refused to install an infrastructure?”
Once each of those questions is answered, the state must still face its budget limitations.
Gunn’s says the final consideration is whether Missouri’s broadband efforts would result in “assisting residents to get broadband where it’s [otherwise] cost-prohibitive.”
Germinder says a massive government investment simply isn’t possible at this time. “The current budget information has dictated where our limitations in that area are. It prevents a comprehensive, wide-reaching initiative to deal with a solution. That still doesn’t solve the regulatory issues and concerns, or defining what broadband is.”
Relating this issue to the deployment of electricity in rural areas in the 1930s and 1940s, Germinder said, “With the natural progression of the development, there is cost of installation versus the cost of the technology. As those costs go down, at what point does it become profitable to [service] that last mile that may only reach a half-dozen residents?”
Casey Cheney ([email protected]) writes from Hillsdale, Michigan.
“Missouri Broadband Report and FCC’s Actions on Broadband,” Missouri Public Service Commission, Kevin Gunn, January 24, 2012: http://news.heartland.org/sites/default/files/missouri20broadband20report20and20fccs20actions20on20broadband.pdf