Spools of cable and bright orange housing, men with heavy equipment and open trenches caught the attention and sparked the collective curiosity of the Christian County Commission.
On Jan. 28, the commissioners invited executives from Total Highspeed to explain what kind of work is happening along State Route JJ east of Ozark, and what kind of work it could lead to in the future.
Travis Allen, the owner and president of Total Highspeed got into the business of internet service providing in 2005. Three years ago, Total Highspeed began its pursuit of fiber-to-the-home internet service providing.
"Right now we're building from McCracken to Highway 14," Allen said. "We're actually just crossing Highway 14."
Workers will head from Route JJ along Highway 14 west toward State Route W, burying fiber optic line as they go. Allen said the project will be done in a few months' time, and will result in people who live in the parts of Christian County between Ozark and Sparta being able to purchase fiber internet access.
"I set a goal to get all of our current wireless customers on fiber in 10 years," Allen said.
Total Highspeed is also planning fiber proects in rural areas around Clever and Billings in the next five years.
"And then if there is more funding available, we'll try to go after it, as well," Allen said.
Presiding Commissioner Ralph Phillips, who was the Eastern District commissioner of Christian County before he was elected to the presiding role in 2018, sees significance in the Total Highspeed project.
"This is going to be important to a lot of people," Phillips said.
Total Highspeed is building out its infrastructure with a hybrid blend of wireless and hard-wired access distribution.
"All of the big companies, they want to do it all wire, all the way," Allen said.
However, Allen believes the mixed approach will work in Christian County, and will deliver the broadband access desired in underserved areas as more and more professionals see their work shifting from offices to their homes.
Schools in Christian County also made shifts toward taking learning to the internet with the arrival of COVID-19 in March 2020. Some school districts provided devices to students allowing wireless internet access in places where they could get a strong enough 4G or 5G cell phone signal.
"COVID brought discrepancies up that we all were aware of, but it's human nature; we're always reactive, not proactive, but I think this is a great opportunity to capture the collaboration, and that's what I see. Who has the most to gain from this would be our educational institutions--our schools," Phillips said.
Total Highspeed's Kelley Lace explained how COVID-19 provided more exposure to what is known as the "Homework Gap," a disparity in educational access for students in rural areas compared to students who live in urban suburbs where high speed access is more prevalent.
"Students will go to school, get an assignment, and then the homework is to go online," Lace said.
"They've got to go to McDonald's, they've got to go to a Panera, they've got to go to a Starbucks or someplace that has public access WiFi."
Christian County Eastern District Commissioner Lynn Morris said that many of his constituents who saw their jobs shift from offices to their homes are expressing the same frustrations that students have connecting to their schools.
"There are so many people working from home today, so I think that's just as important as education," Morris said.
Total Highspeed and other internet providers are looking for federal government grants geared toward telehealth, which are designed to keep patients from making unnecessary visits to health clinics or emergency rooms.
"People aren't going to the doctors, people are using telemedicine," Allen said.
Federal guidelines define minimum speeds for "broadband" as 10-megabyte download speed and 1-megabyte upload speeds. By modern standards, it's not really fast internet, but according to the federal government, it's fast enough to limit grant funding for projects in urban areas where one internet service provider can hold control of infrastructure and a long-term contract with a municipality.
That doesn't mean cities in Christian County are out of luck when it comes to fiber installation. The Christian County Commission will encourage internet companies to perform fiber installations that run in concert with other utility projects in cities.
"If a municipality is doing something and they are going to have stuff torn up, that's the time to tap in and minimize cost," Phillips said.
Allen said that an internet company can spend up to $60,000 per mile for a large broadband internet installation project in rural areas. COVID-19 also brought about more funding for internet projects that boost telehealth practice capability for health care providers.
The National Association of Counties is examining ways to expand broadband access in rural areas across the country. The organization is lobbying state and federal lawmakers to fund broadband expansion projects in rural areas.
The Christian County Commission aims to hold a meeting with Greene County Presiding Commissioner Bob Dixon, who is engaged in lobbying with the National Association of Counties, to specifically discuss broadband project funding for Christian County sometime in February 2021.
In late October 2020, Total Highspeed received a boost from a broadband grant allocated from the federal government.
Some Christian County residents and businesses stand to benefit from the $24 million grant awarded to Total Highspeed to bolster internet access to its customers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is spending $91.5 million to provide broadband service in unserved and underserved rural areas in Missouri. The funding is part of a $550 million Congress allocated to the second round of the ReConnect Program.
The Christian County Commission will also explore forming a task force that will include a mixture of private and public officials in effort to lobby for and obtain funding for high speed internet projects in Christian County.
In the 2021 State of the State Address, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson announced his office would seek a $5 million budget request from the Missouri General Assembly to expand broadband infrastructure and access across the state.
Citizens can ask specific questions about what sort of work might be occurring in their neighborhoods by sending an email to email@example.com.