HERMITAGE, Missouri

On a bad day, Cindy Gilmore walks outside to the gas pumps at her convenience store in Flemington and reluctantly puts signs over the credit card machines to let people know they are out of service.

When the doors of the TNT Quick Shop open, she’s greeted by equally upset customers who say, “You’re kidding me — again? The internet is down?”

They hand Gilmore a credit or debit card — or cash, but not too many people carry cash nowadays. When they pay with a card, Gilmore has to rely on a Square card reader. She pays 2.75 percent in fees each time she resorts to this backup measure.

Even then, it’s common for the credit card information to fail to process when the internet starts working again, Gilmore said. She then has to track down the people who spent money at her store, or take a loss. This has been a problem since she and her husband, Randy, purchased the store six and a half years ago.

Disconnected: Lack of internet impacts rural businesses from Columbia Missourian on Vimeo.

Poor broadband service is not uncommon for the Hermitage area or the county. Hickory County ranks 92nd out of 115 in broadband speed in Missouri counties, according to data from the Federal Communications Commission, or FCC.

When you’re in Hermitage, which is home to just over 450 people, you can have decent cell service and Wi-Fi access because the broadband hub is in the center of the city. But as you travel 10 to 15 miles to the outer towns — Elkton, Flemington or Wheatland — you’re lucky to make a phone call or load an internet page in less than five minutes.

The Hermitage area experienced a 27-hour internet service outage in November. Business owners, like Gilmore, were affected financially and were unable to do their jobs.

With only one broadband provider available to the entire city, CenturyLink, the bandwidth is oversubscribed, which leads to poor internet service.

In a world that is becoming more dependent on technology in everyday life, rural Americans without access to the proper resources are falling behind. Businesses, in particular, are kept from growing without access to broadband, which many consider now to be vital infrastructure.

Broadband expectations versus reality
Broadband is the bandwidth that allows users to access high-speed internet at a faster speed than traditional “dial-up” services. The connection can be offered through a digital subscriber line, or DSL, a cable modem, fiber, wireless or satellite service.

Different platforms provide different speeds. The necessary broadband speeds vary based on activities, technology and the number of users on the bandwidth. The speed is measured in megabits per second, or Mbps.

In Missouri, there is not a state agency or department that regulates broadband. Instead, Missouri’s broadband resources and funding are managed by the FCC.

The FCC suggests a download speed minimum of 1 Mbps to send emails or browse the internet. For students, it recommends a minimum speed of anywhere from 5 to 25 Mbps. And to download files, someone would need at least 10 Mbps, according to the FCC’s broadband speed guide.

But Gilmore and other CenturyLink subscribers in the Hermitage area are paying for “up to” 1.5 Mbps each month. This means they are not guaranteed 1.5 Mbps.

Gilmore ran a speed test on her computer on random days from July to late November in 2017.

In July, she received a download speed of 0.87 to 0.99 Mbps, which she said she considers good service.

On Nov. 12, the speed was 0.5 Mbps download. She was surprised two weeks later to have a speed of 1.5 Mbps, which is what she pays $89 a month for. But just two days later, the speed dropped to 0.4 Mbps. When this happens, she can’t access the internet for credit card transactions, look up order numbers for supply orders or do work from her office.

Gilmore has submitted requests to the Attorney General’s Office, but has been told there is nothing the state can do.

Janie Dunning recently retired as Missouri’s rural development director in Missouri. Dunning spent 49 years serving Missouri rural communities. She said broadband is a “vital resource” not just for everyday lives, but for running businesses and supporting an economy.

“Broadband is a powerful economic development engine,” Dunning said. “It can be the difference, especially in the rural communities.”

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