Springfield, MO

Log in Subscribe

White River Connect plans $260M high-speed internet project

Officials say work to start in the third quarter is expected to take five years

Posted online

Last edited 9:21 a.m., March 20, 2023

The launch of an estimated $260 million, five-year high-speed internet buildout to help connect the service area of White River Valley Electric Cooperative Inc. is expected by late summer or early fall, officials say.

The cooperative was awarded nearly $47.4 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds from the Missouri Department of Economic Development. The award was part of $261 million the DED announced in January through the ARPA Broadband Infrastructure Grant Program, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting. The ARPA funds are expected to create over 55,000 broadband connections in locations of the state that have previously lacked adequate internet access.

White River Valley Electric Cooperative plans to conduct seven connection projects in its service territory of Christian, Douglas, Ozark, Stone and Taney counties. The work is through its fiber subsidiary, White River Connect. Beau Jackson, a longtime employee of the cooperative, is White River Connect’s CEO. He said while White River felt good about its grant applications when submitting them for ARPA funding, he didn’t expect such a positive response.

“We put in seven applications for seven different areas, and we would have been pleased to get about half of them,” he said. “But getting awarded all seven of them? It proved that we made a case for our area.”

State officials agreed when announcing the ARPA grants in a news release.

“White River Valley Electric Cooperative did a great job of laying out the why of why this funding was necessary to local communities,” Missouri Department of Economic Development Director of Broadband Development BJ Tanksley said in the release. “There are 400,000 unserved and underserved locations in the state of Missouri. These grants were a down payment for changing broadband access for these Missourians.”

White River Connect is in the design and procurement phase of the five-year undertaking, Jackson said. Some of that involves acquiring all the necessary building permits with agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service. The order of where work will progress during the project is also under consideration, but Jackson said the first year’s construction phasing plan will be announced soon.

The fiber-optic build is expected to begin in the third quarter of this year, with the first phase of customers being able to access high-speed connections in early 2024. The co-op intends to offer subscribers speeds above 1 gigabit for data uploads and downloads to meet future bandwidth demand.

While National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative, engineering firm Toth and Associates Inc. and BBC Electrical Services Inc. are among those working on the project with White River Connect, the company handling the fiber installation is yet to be selected. Jackson said that part of the project is currently out for bid.

“By the end of April, we’ll know who our general contractor is,” he said. “At least, that’s what we’re planning.”

 Meeting a need
Cassie Cunningham, the cooperative’s  vice president and chief growth officer, said a feasibility study and membership survey were part of research that White River Valley conducted over the past two years to determine the need for rural internet. The study evaluated topics such as area terrain, population density and technology choices.

Nearly 8,000 members responded to the survey, with 91% indicating interest in the co-op providing internet services to their areas. Only 13% reported having reliable internet with speeds over 25 megabits per second upload and 3 Mbps download.

“That’s dial-up, essentially,” Cunningham said, noting there are a lot of pockets in some of White River Valley’s service area with no internet service at all.

Reliable internet connectivity is essential for having access to services such as health care, schools and public safety, she said. The survey showed a need for the co-op to move forward, officials say. A strategic planning meeting in July 2022 resulted in a green light from the cooperative’s board of directors.

“What came out of COVID and the ARPA funds is that we had to have that connectivity in this area to thrive,” she said. “That was a big push for this.”

About 20% of the state – 1.26 million people – is without access to high-speed internet, according to University of Missouri Extension research. But even those who have internet access may not have quality or reliable service. More than one million of those without reliable internet live in rural areas.

In progress
Contractors are currently assessing the cooperative’s infrastructure before the project will move into the next phase, officials say.

“There’s a lot of work that has to be done with the existing infrastructure to prepare for the fiber deployment,” Jackson said, noting some of it involves getting clearances from other companies that may use existing power poles for phone, cable or other services.

White River Connect continues to seek other grant options, he said, adding the co-op will partner with banks to ensure it has adequate funding for the multiyear undertaking.

“Any capital needs for this project would be independent in the way we’re modeling everything and the financial needs to make it feasible and sustainable,” he said. “There’s not going to be a need to raise rates on our existing membership for this project.”

Additionally, community support also was received from Ozark, Stone and Taney counties, which collectively committed $9.3 million of county ARPA funding toward the broadband buildout.

Since announcing the project, Jackson said the co-op gets calls every day from residents interested to learn more.

“They’re asking when are we going to get to them. They can’t wait,” he said, noting monthly subscription cost projections are still being analyzed.

“Excitement is an understatement,” he added. “We’ve been working months and months and months on this project, and we cannot wait to get started and get this service out there.”


No comments on this story |
Please log in to add your comment
Editors' Pick
Open for Business: Art Zone

Art Zone LLC, Launch Virtual Learning Center and The Permit Shop relocated.

Most Read
Update cookies preferences