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Federal funds bringing broadband to rural Missouri

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A plan to expand rural internet service took another step forward with the Federal Communications Commission announcing $1.5 billion in support over the next 10 years in Phase II of its Connect America Fund.

Three companies – Total Highspeed LLC, Wisper ISP Inc. and Barry Electric Cooperative – were selected for funding in Missouri’s 7th Congressional District.

“We have been building internet for rural Missouri for the last 13 years. The future is really bright, and we’re glad the federal and state governments are providing more funding to provide that in a better way,” said Travis Allen, owner of Total Highspeed.

Nixa-based Total Highspeed was awarded $640,560 by the FCC for 386 locations for new or upgraded network infrastructure over a six-year period, according to FCC documents. Illinois-based Wisper ISP was assigned $176.3 million for 68,269 locations and the electric co-op in Barry County was assigned $6.1 million for 2,308 locations. 

Missouri will receive more than $255 million, or 17 percent, of the $1.5 billion total.

The FCC held an auction July 24-Aug. 21 and selected 103 bidders to service more than 700,000 infrastructure sites nationwide. 

The first phase of funding in 2012 was only available to larger companies, like AT&T Corp. (NYSE: T) and CenturyLink Inc. (NYSE: CTL).

Allen said he couldn’t disclose where service for Phase II would begin until Oct. 15, citing FCC stipulations.

“The first step is a lot of paperwork with the FCC to get the support,” Allen said.

“After that, we have three years to build up to 40 percent of those locations.”

Total Highspeed will complete 20 percent of the remaining locations each year following the first three years until all service work is completed.

“This will go a long way in helping bridge the digital divide in rural Missouri,” said Rep. Billy Long, R-Missouri, in a news release. “Rural broadband deployment has been a priority of mine and I applaud the FCC for its efforts to fill this digital divide. Broadband access is a critical component for a healthy 21st century rural economy.”

Long introduced the PEERING Act of 2018 in January that calls for internet infrastructure in areas where none currently exist.

Total Highspeed already has committed to rural broadband improvements. Company officials said earlier this year they’re investing $30 million for wired rural broadband in the 16 counties they serve.

“Our goal for the future is to run fiber outside of the cities,” Allen said.

The company plans to lay fiber in Fair Grove beginning Oct. 1. In the $7 million, three-to-five-year project, officials hope to bring one gigabit per second speeds to rural northeast Greene County.

So far, Total Highspeed has brought fiber to homes for a neighborhood in Highlandville and two neighborhoods in Ozark.

Total Highspeed is applying for U.S. Department of Agriculture loans that would fund rural networking for about 4,000 households.

Allen said it takes three years to build a fiber infrastructure.

Total Highspeed has almost 300 towers in 16 counties with a range that includes Lebanon, Carthage, Mountain View and Camdenton, and into Arkansas, in Eureka Springs and Alpena.

A new department in Missouri, the Broadband Development Office, opened in early July to offer deployment options and resources to businesses like Total Highspeed.

The office, led by Tim Arbeiter, administers the Missouri Rural Broadband Development Fund grant program that was signed into law June 1.

The framework for the program was created, but funds were not appropriated this year, Arbeiter said. The program is slated to launch next year if funding is secured. 

Allen said Total Highspeed would attempt to access funding through the fund.

“Once that’s ready, we’d love to have some assistance from that,” he said. “The difficulty with fiber is the costs are front-loaded. You have to build everything before you have customers.”

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