Your State Needs Broadband Legislative Champions. Just Ask Louis Riggs

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Digital Beat

Your State Needs Broadband Legislative Champions. Just Ask Louis Riggs

Louis Riggs’s impact in Missouri shows why every state needs a broadband legislative champion.

State Rep Louis Riggs

In 2016, representatives from the northern region of Missouri met in Brookfield to talk about the issues they were facing.  Stakeholders of all kinds—economic developers, USDA employees, elected officials, county commissioners, and mayors—from every county north of I-70 complained bitterly about everything their communities were going without.

As the meeting progressed, five topics were written on a board, five ways to find solutions to these communities’ needs. 

Broadband was listed as number one.

The attendees never got to number two.

Louis Riggs was at that meeting, advocating for his community. For 15 years, Riggs has been an educator, an attorney, and an active advocate for economic development in rural Missouri.

“Broadband was something that permeated everything we did,” says Riggs. 

And, Riggs says, eight of the ten worst-served counties in the state were in northeast Missouri.

At the same meeting, Janie Dunning, from the USDA, stood up and said, “What the state really needs is a legislative champion—and it doesn’t have one.”

“That really stuck with me,” says Riggs.

Organizing for Better Broadband

Riggs is a lifelong resident of Hannibal, located in the far northeast corner of Missouri that borders Iowa and Illinois. Hannibal and the upper reaches of the state have long gone without a strong voice to speak for residents and their needs. There hasn’t been a statewide elected official from the region since 2004.

“It’s been a struggle for a very long time,” Riggs says. “We understand that we have to punch above our own weight all the time.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, broadband became universally recognized as necessary for all Missouri residents. Riggs capitalized on that momentum and got to work.

Riggs formed a group of like-minded, grassroots, broadband organizers. 

When Riggs talks about fighting for better broadband in Missouri, he recalls the first crucial moment for him at a 2017 meeting with then-Lieutenant Governor Mike Parson (R-MO), now governor of the state.

A small group of policymakers, including Riggs, sat with Parson and discussed how badly Missourians needed internet access, and how badly they needed a statewide point person for broadband.

“And he just looked at us for a couple of seconds, and said, ‘I'll do it,’” Riggs recounts.

Together, they talked to the governor’s policy director that afternoon.

Within a matter of months, a group numbering more than 100 people participated in a meeting at the Missouri Farm Bureau to discuss the need to deploy broadband across the state. Riggs was the only person in attendance from a grassroots organization. Among the attendees were two term-limited lawmakers, making the need for a legislative champion even more poignant.  

When a legislative seat in his area opened in 2018, Riggs said it felt like perfect timing. Elected to the Missouri House of Representatives for District 5 in 2018, Riggs ran his campaign on broadband. Since being elected, Riggs has worked with state officials and stakeholders across Missouri to advance universal broadband.

Riggs’s impact in Missouri shows why every state needs a broadband legislative champion.

COVID Spurs Progress for Missouri Broadband

In 2018, Riggs had statewide support, a history of broadband advocacy, and the determination to improve broadband access in Missouri. He was, in his own words, “pulling teeth” to do it, but Riggs helped to secure $5 million for the Missouri Broadband Grant Program in 2019.

Last-mile coverage means the final leg of the telecommunications network which reaches end users. It’s that connection to every individual home. But to Riggs, it’s also “last-acre coverage” he’s concerned about, as the benefits of broadband for agriculture cannot be understated.

His first broadband bill, HB 1768, extended the Missouri Broadband Grant Program an additional six years to June 30, 2027. Under the legislation, grant recipients that did not meet the speed requirement of 25 megabits per second were required to repay any funds received through the program. In addition to extending the Missouri Broadband Grant Program, HB 1768 modified the capabilities of Neighborhood Improvement and Community Improvement Districts—areas that can be created by Missouri communities to build, maintain, or improve public infrastructure—to include broadband as an acceptable project. The law also added a 3-year statute of limitations on state funds to create a sense of urgency not present in Federal programs.  

Since then, Riggs has stewarded numerous bills supporting broadband funding and state actions to close the digital divide. And the state has drastically increased funding for broadband in Missouri:

Within three years, small appropriations became much bigger appropriations as broadband deployment needs became more evident.

According to Riggs, the key is to supplement federal funding—from the CARES Act, the American Rescue Plan Act, and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act—with state funds so communities have the resources to “play ball” with providers.

Now-Governor Mike Parson (R-MO) signed SB 820 into law in June 2022. The law holds providers accountable for using the funds they are given and authorizes the state to seek the return of broadband funding from any provider that defaults or breaches agreements to deploy broadband.

Since Federal funds are allocated at the census block level, SB 820 also gives the State of Missouri standing to sue the Federal government to keep defaulted Federal funds in Missouri.  The State’s Broadband Fund stands ready to receive such funds and allocate them according to statute: unserved first, underserved second, and “other,” third.  Additional language enables any political subdivision in the State—including water supply districts and school districts—to erect towers to deploy broadband resources.  This provision was brought to Riggs by an urban Democrat who wants to see abandoned school sites turned into locations for towers that can bridge the digital divide in the urban core.  

Broadband Champions Need Partners

Having strong partners is crucial to achieving success in this line of work, says Riggs. He is grateful to other state officials, namely BJ Tanksley, leader of the Missouri Office of Broadband Development and former head of the Missouri Farm Bureau, who has been working to close the digital divide for a long time and is, Riggs says, a joy to work with:

BJ knows the entire state. He’s a Missourian by birth, and he came from a place with poor internet service. He gets it. Having a person like that who has that real-world knowledge, who knows the entire state and, basically, everybody in the entire state, is so important.

Riggs also acknowledges how Gov. Parson’s support got the ball rolling on broadband.

“The Governor increased the size of the [broadband] office from one person to basically 15 people. A major part of this was getting that broadband office into a position where they could succeed.”

Having a full broadband office gives Missouri the power to protect its communities from bad actors, control the influx of funding coming into the state, and show residents progress on infrastructure deployment.

In 2021, Speaker of the Missouri House of Representatives Rob Vescovo appointed the Interim Committee on Broadband Development to prepare a comprehensive report on the digital divide in Missouri and make legislative and fiscal recommendations for the state. Riggs was tapped to chair the committee. To create the report, Riggs and the Missouri broadband team held town hall meetings all over the state to hear from residents about how they experience the digital divide.

In the final report issued in January 2022, the committee recommended more funding for the Missouri Broadband Office and for its state broadband infrastructure matching grant program, as well as additional staff to improve the oversight of participating internet service providers. The committee also recommended raising the state’s definition of broadband to 100/20 Mbps in accordance with the federal standards for incoming Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act funding. Further recommendations included legislation to encourage the use of government-owned structures and broadband assets in broadband deployment, public-private partnerships, overhaul rights-of-way access and pole attachment policies, and institute “Dig-Once” policies to enhance the efficiency of broadband infrastructure deployments.

The report also made clear the need for a Broadband Development Council that could create a publicly accessible broadband mapping resource for Missouri residents.

The Need for Speed

To maximize funding to expand broadband infrastructure, Riggs is a proponent of being technology “agnostic.” To him, the most important thing is getting the right speeds, regardless of how the connection is built.

“I'm technology agnostic, but I'm not speed agnostic. Wireless has some serious [speed] problems," he says. "At the end of the day, fiber is future-proof unless somebody cuts a line.”

Riggs says that almost all of Missouri’s broadband infrastructure funding so far has gone to expanding fiber networks because that’s how the right speeds are delivered. He notes in particular that local cooperatives are doing a “lights out” job, and state standards have been flexible enough to allow these local providers to compete for funding.  

“Their ethic is, ‘Hey, we're your neighbors, we're not here to extract profits from you. We're here for the long haul. We've been here for the better part of a hundred years, and we're gonna be here for another hundred. How can we help?’”

Looking for technology solutions that are best for what communities need is an iterative, constant process, Riggs says.

“You have to keep your foot on the gas all the time. You can't relax, you can't rest on your laurels. Technology is improving under your feet, whether you like it or not. You must keep up with the times and hopefully, you’ll stay ahead of it.”

It’s important to understand that broadband is no longer a why we need it issue, Riggs says.  Conflicts arise when broadband access discussions come to how we do it, whether it’s disagreements between state officials or internet service providers.

“At the end of the day when we all sit down, we have to look at what is in the best interest of the state of Missouri,” he says. “Not you, not your shareholders. Us. If you wanna be part of the solution, great. If you wanna be the problem, be the problem. But we're going to move forward, period. I try to convey that message to as many people as I can, that this thing needs to move forward.”

Looking Ahead

In both 2021 and 2022, Riggs sponsored bills that would have established state broadband improvement districts, a Missouri Broadband Deployment Task Force, and a statewide Broadband Enhancement Council to create broadband mapping services and an interactive public map.

While these measures may not have passed, Riggs is still fighting for universal broadband and is hopeful for Missouri’s broadband future. The only way forward for him is to never give up.

“I was told in 2022, on eight separate occasions, that [SB 820] was dead,” says Riggs. “And every time I said, ‘My bill's not dead until I say it's dead.’ And that bill's hanging on my wall. You have to be persistent.”

In the future, Riggs hopes to accomplish a number of things. Holding broadband service providers more accountable for offering affordable plans is something he wants to seeand the state is working on what that will look like.

Missouri also wants to expand digital navigator programs, like those that are seeing success in Kansas City, Riggs says.

“Kansas City has great programs, and we want to work on providing digital navigators throughout Missouri. We know who we need to talk to, we know who's doing this every day. It's just a question of putting resources in place so the entire state can replicate that.”

Intergovernmental coordination is crucial, Riggs says, especially on the link between broadband and workforce development opportunities. He adds that this synergy is something Gov Parson is really focused on because broadband enables people to educate themselves, to learn about job opportunities, and digital literacy skill-building courses.

“At the back of all this is the ability to knit the workforce together through online resources,” says Riggs. “[Remote work] is here to stay. We know that. The question is what do we do? Do we turn that into a strength, do we build on it, or do we sit there and wring our hands? I prefer the strength approach.”

Those applications––whether they be workforce development, telehealth, online banking, or other uses––are why Missouri is looking to achieve universal broadband as soon as possible.

“I would say a solid 90 to 95 percent of Missouri should be able–within three to four years–to say, ‘Hey, I got the broadband connection I need.’ There'll be some in pockets that will never be reached with fiber. But we're putting all the pieces on the board to see exactly what we need to do next.”

Listening and Leadership

State Representative Riggs has been recognized for his work on numerous committees. On the state level, he served as the chairman of the aforementioned Special Interim Committee on Broadband and the Special Committee on Broadband and Infrastructure. Riggs is also a member of the Board of Directors of Missouri Rural Development Partners as well as the Missouri Workforce Development Committee.

“It's all a part of active listening,” he says. “I went back to school in 2012 to become a mediator, and that skill set is active listening. What are you telling me, and what do you actually mean? How do we get from where you want to be to where we need to be?”

According to Riggs, his experiences as a college professor and as an attorney heavily influence his ability to connect with communities as a legislator to make changes at the state level. 

This work has made a lasting impact on Riggs, particularly working with people who have sacrificed to help bring broadband to their communities.

“The most humbling thing was a gentleman walking in my Capitol office door offering a piece of land to the state of Missouri for a tower,” he says. “You don't get any better than that. It just gives you goosebumps to deal with folks like that. I'll remember that until the day I die.”

The significance of the opportunities that broadband access can provide is never lost on him, and neither are the lessons he learns from being a community advocate.

“I know this is the most important thing I will do in my life. I have six million people in Missouri, and a million of them don't have good internet and depend on what we do in Jefferson City. What I'm doing to make this thing go is humbling and also daunting. But it's a process and it's a journey. I learn every single day whether I want to or not.”

Becoming a Broadband Legislative Champion

So, how can you become a broadband legislative champion for your state?

You learn from people who are doing the work in their communities and see if you can do this work in yours.

“Talk to people who have been there, done that,” Riggs says. “There are a number of us out there who are adamant that this has just got to happen. We don't take no for an answer. It’s our life’s passion…obsession probably.”

Riggs is acutely aware that his time as a state representative is term-limited and he wants to do whatever he can with the influence he currently has. 

“I'm termed out in 2026—win, lose or draw,” he says. “I want to talk about broadband in the past tense before I leave in 2026. I want this problem to be solved so we can look at it and say, ‘yeah, we did that. It took us a while to get there, but we did it.’”

Not every state has the coordination between the broadband office, the governor, and the state legislature that Riggs and his peers enjoy. But this can be learned, he says. There are webinars and resources from successful partnerships to emulate.

Since June 2021, Riggs has hosted monthly Zoom calls for the Northeast Missouri Broadband Steering Committee that meets to provide updates to stakeholders, discuss what needs to be done, and prepare next steps.

“Now we have folks from other states signing on to that call to see how we do things,” he says. “It’s nothing fancy, but it is informative and it is consistent. Our secret sauce is communication. No one gets blindsided and everyone is aware of what everyone else is doing.”

To make things happen, it just takes care for your community, drive, and knowledge to succeed.

Grace Tepper is a Senior Writing Associate at the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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