On Aug. 2, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page announced that county officials would be utilizing $4 million in CARES Act funding to help provide internet access for students in underserved areas for the upcoming school year.
The effort is a collaboration between local school districts, St. Louis County government and the St. Louis County Library (SLCL). It will provide an estimated 12,500 mobile hot spots and 2,500 tablets for students, including those in West County. One such location is Wildwood, which has pockets of rural communities that are underserved in terms of access to high-speed internet.
Commenting on the available hotspots, Wildwood Mayor Jim Bowlin noted that while students in the community will receive support for the academic school year, addressing the absence of internet access in Wildwood remains an ongoing topic for the municipality.
Geographically, the community of Wildwood is one of the most rural in the St. Louis metropolitan area with an average of 522 residents per square mile versus the county’s average of 1,896 residents per square mile. Many of the city’s low-density pockets are located in Wards 1 and 6 and west of Hwy. 109.
In the past six months, additional steps have been taken to help individuals in the top eight underserved areas work or attend school from home during the quarantine. Chief among those efforts was installing small cell technology in April that could serve as a transmission network between internet towers – slingshotting the wireless signal from tower to cell to tower.
“We’ve been successful with a couple of those, and that is still out there,” Bowlin said.
However, in May, Bowlin announced that high-speed internet provider Bays-ET would use AT&T’s LTE network and infrastructure to extend access to 91% of the city’s rural community. That measure did not cover those with no cell service. As a result, the Rural Internet Access Committee (RIAC) is continuing to pursue citywide options.
According to Bowlin, Wildwood is putting together a proposal to submit to St. Louis County regarding potential funding of a future plan for fiber-optic connections should additional federal funds become available.
Wildwood is working with consultant CTC Technology & Energy which provided a report to the city in 2019 regarding the feasibility of multiple high-speed internet options. CTC concluded that building an FTTP (fiber to the premises) network would cost at least $59 million due to the required accommodations of the sparsely populated areas. Another option is for the city to partner with an internet service provider (ISP) to supply near-ubiquitous service, with anticipated incentive costs of $2.5 million to $3.5 million. The city sent out a request for proposal (RFP) in January 2020, and according to Bowlin, the window for those applications has since closed and the RIAC has begun evaluating all submissions.
“That decision is coming to a head,” Bowlin said, noting that the city is in going to be looking at its viability from several perspectives. “An installation perspective, a timing perspective and, of course, a cost perspective. Who it will be (and), ultimately depending on the costs, how will that be funded?”
The need for high-speed internet access in Wildwood has captured the attention of St. Louis County Council member Mark Harder [District 7], who has advocated for using CARES Act funding to bring additional high-speed internet access to the community for students and workers alike.
“The CARES Act funding has been buying, or promised to buy, iPads and internet hot spots, which I believe are cellular-based, for some of these folks,” Harder said. “Once they started discussing that, I brought up that West County, and specifically Wildwood, is in an underserved internet area as it is now.”
That need, for students, is being met by the hot spots and tablets available through the County Library system.
On Aug. 11, Gov. Mike Parson announced that 16 broadband projects from eight broadband providers would receive more than $3 million through the state’s Emergency Broadband Investment Program. That program, which received applications months earlier, will connect almost 2,000 Missouri households. According to Bowlin, Wildwood had expressed interest in the program but was deemed ineligible due to the fact the community has multiple areas that do have high-speed internet access.
“It’s been a lot of effort throughout the years,” Bowlin said. “In terms of timing, we’re getting very close to making that decision (regarding what options work best for the city), but I don’t think that’s been conclusively determined yet.”
Any plan or proposal approved by the RIAC will be subject to review and final approval by the Wildwood City Council.