Broadband meeting creates discussion about Internet access availability

Steve Chapman

Bob Dixon listens to feedback provided by members of the audience at the broadband meeting.

Greene County commissioner part of task force to search for broadband Internet solutions
Bob Dixon, Greene County presiding commissioner, led a forum to discuss the availability of Internet access in Lawrence County on Wednesday, April 28 at the MARC in Mt. Vernon. About 25 people attended the meeting.
Though he is a Greene County commissioner, Dixon was acting in his role as a member of the National Association of Counties Broadband Task Force; a body he requested to join when he noticed there was no one from Missouri on it.
“There’s about 30 of us (on the task force) across the country,” he said, “and we are taking inventory of where we have broadband and where we don’t, and what the barriers are to building those systems out for citizens.”
Dixon said he wanted to get feedback from community members about what the status of Internet access is in Lawrence County.
“What I wanted to do,” he said, “as part of that task force, was go out into … the neighboring counties and just visit with leaders and stakeholders and citizens and (ask) ‘Where do we have it? What’s the footprint? What are the barriers to build that? How can we guarantee full access?’ It’s all part of that national task force.”
During the meeting, Dixon wrote down the comments he received from audience members, which he said would be provided to the task force.
“My goal is actually to get everyone in the audience to talk,” he said. “I’m a facilitator, trying to facilitate a discussion so I can write down everything that everybody says. Then I’ll take that back to the task force.”
Dixon also said an increased number of people online, including those working from home, as well as students learning online, has stressed the system.
“In a lot of counties, what we’re finding is that there may be broadband, but it may be very slow, and if there’s access, folks are having a difficult time getting on there.,” he said. “What we’ve learned from the pandemic is that there are more people working from home, there are more students at home, or at least there were, and so you have more of a demand on all the systems, and it’s really kind of peeled the onion back to where we can see what the weaknesses are.”

Lack of high-speed Internet access frustrating to small business owners:
One person who spoke during the meeting was Scott George. George said Century Link laid out Internet fiber optics just 100 yards from his house, but even though he could see it from his window, he couldn’t get access to it.
““I called them, and the only answer I got is, ‘That connection is not available to you right now,’” he said.
Pam Dudley, executive director of the Mt. Vernon Area Chamber of Commerce, said new chamber members who have moved into the area and are starting businesses out of their homes are also wanting faster Internet service but are unable to get it.
“We have an influx of new people moving into our area, and they’ve come from California, New Jersey and Minnesota,” she said. “They are accustomed to their big city Internet, and they’re trying to run their small businesses from home, and it’s just not possible. They contacted me for contacts to chamber members that provide services, but if you’re outside of city limits, it is very difficult to find something that is fast enough.”
Dudley, who also runs a business with her husband, said she had a similar experience to George’s, and the lack of high-speed Internet availability could be harmful to the local economy.
“My husband and I run a business, and we live out by Scott George,” she said. “Same issue, fiber is right there, but it’s not offered to us, and we have to have certain speeds that Century Link cannot provide to us. But I think it’s important for people moving to this area to be able to grow the economy (with) these small home businesses, and they also need this access, and the barrier is that we’re out in the county, and we can see the fiber; it’s right there, but we can’t get access to it.”

Challenges in bringing Internet access to all students:
During the meeting, some area school superintendents also gave their input. One was Dr. Kevin Medlin, interim superintendent of the Monett R-I School District. Medlin said up to 90-percent of the district’s students had Internet access and could participate in online learning, but during the pandemic about 400 were without access and had to use different learning activities.
Medlin also said that inside Monett, Internet access is good, but “questionable” outside of the city. He described Freistatt, where some of the district’s students live, as a “dead zone” as far as Internet access was concerned.
Scott Cook, superintendent of the Mt. Vernon School District, said that when the students registered this year, only about 68-percent of them said they had Internet access. Despite the district’s efforts to provide Internet access outside of school, Cook said, some students were still unable to get access to the Internet at home.
“We purchased several hotspots for our families, and we found that about 10-pecent of our families, even with the hotspots, could not access the Internet,” he said.
Cook also said that students who were able to use the hot spots would go through data very quickly because they had to download videos, as well as submit and receive homework online.

Obstacles in providing Internet access:
Some Internet access providers also spoke at the meeting. Phillip Tryon, of Wisper Internet, said vegetation created an obstacle in getting broadband service to customers.
“With the fixed wireless, vegetation is a decently large issue,” he said. “The vegetation stops too much of the bandwidth.”
Another Internet provider, Mark Ivie, owner of Aire Internet, said a problem was the limits on how fast a service he could provide in rural areas and still qualify for grant money to pay for the infrastructure. At present, he said, the fastest speed he is allowed to provide and still receive grant money is 25 megabits of download speed. With an increase in Internet traffic he said, that is not enough.
“You have to have a high upload speed now in order to make that stream nice and (even),” he said. “Folks like Wisper and myself, we can provide 50 megabits of download speed, (but) once you hit that threshold, the area that we serve no longer qualifies for grant money.”

How the feedback will be used:
During the meeting, Dixon showed the audience a map of the southwest quadrant of Missouri, which he said indicated that broadband Internet access was available practically across the entire quadrant. Dixon told the audience that the map was misleading, as the FCC “determines the way an area has broadband available is if one person in a census track has access to broadband, they count the entire census track as covered.”
Dixon further stated it was important for the task force to take an inventory on Internet availability in the area, as the FCC will use the information to determine who would get grants to lay additional fiber optics.
Dixon said he predicted the information would be used as a “lobbying effort” in Congress.
“What I believe will happen is that once they’ve taken the inventory and have a report, I think it will turn into a lobbying effort on the part of the Congress for additional infrastructure dollars on broadband itself,” he said. “We have good examples of what did work in the past through the rural electric cooperatives with … bringing electricity to rural areas, and that’s a great model for broadband delivery. We’ve not used that, but the Congress could utilize that going forward for broadband.”


Lawrence County Record

312 S. Hickory St.
Mt. Vernon, MO, 65712


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