Better access to fast internet service means better access to jobs, educational opportunities and health care in rural Missouri, participants in a local conference were told Wednesday.

The infrastructure that supports broadband is as important today as the infrastructure that allows goods to move across the state, said Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe.

That doesn't mean just highways and bridges, he said.

"Infrastructure also is access to the world — internet access," Kehoe said. "And that goes hand-in-hand with workforce development."

The rural broadband conference at the Holiday Inn Expo Center was part of a University of Missouri Extension Summit and part of Engagement Week throughout the University of Missouri System. Nearly 1.3 million Missourians don't have high-speed internet, with 1 million of them in rural areas, according to MU Extension literature.

Missouri ranks 41st or 42nd in the nation for broadband internet access, said Tim Arbeiter, director of the Office of Broadband Development in the state Department of Economic Development.

In Purdue University's Digital Divide Index, in which 100 is the greatest digital divide and zero is the least, Missouri's score is 56.

"How do we learn from other states?" Arbeiter said. "Minnesota has been leading the pack, if you will."

Broadband access is a rural, suburban and urban issue, he said. "The priority is rural because that's where the crisis is."

High-speed internet access likely is one of the biggest barriers to keeping talented people in the state, Kehoe said. The state budget includes $5 million for grants to provide broadband access to underserved areas.

"We — policy-makers mainly — have been giving this problem lip service," he said.

Jamie Kleinsorge, project coordinator with the MU Center for Applied Research and Engagement Systems, showed a map on allthingsmissouri.org, a website that consolidates data, showing broadband coverage around the state. While Kansas City has Google Fiber, she highlighted a section of downtown Kansas City with little broadband access.

Using other data, she showed that workforce participation was low in the same area.

"Is it an affordability issue?" she asked about broadband access. "It likely is."

Affordability also was brought up by Dan Cassidy, chief administrative officer for Missouri Farm Bureau.

"It doesn't do us any good if we have access and it's not affordable," Cassidy said.

"When our rural communities thrive, our urban communities survive and thrive better," said Chris Chinn, director of the Missouri Department of Agriculture.

One estimate is that $47 billion could be added to the state economy if broadband access were to be expanded statewide, she said.

The need for broadband is expanding rapidly as more and more machines and appliances are using more and more sophisticated technology.

Modern tractors, for example, are guided by GPS systems, Chinn said, adding that "everything revolves around technology today" on farms.

Herb Kuhn, president and CEO of the Missouri Hospital Association, said broadband access introduces new opportunities in medicine. While 30 percent of Missouri's population lives in rural areas, only 9 percent of its doctors are in rural areas.

"We have huge medical deserts across the state of Missouri," Kuhn said.

Broadband access is an essential tool that can break down barriers to medical access, Kuhn said.

Kleinsorge discussed strategies and resources for addressing the issue, including community need surveys and inventories, and forming a local working group to set goals and priorities.

Arbeiter said participants should work with stakeholders in their regions.

"Don't get overwhelmed," Arbeiter said. "Take it in small bites. Form a team"

"Hopefully we can come back in two or three years and demonstrate the progress we have made," Kleinsorge said.

MU Chancellor Alexander Cartwright said statewide broadband access is a challenge for everyone.

"Any advantage we can give people, the better it  is for them," Cartwright said. "And broadband is an advantage. We should not accept the fact that Missouri is 41st in the nation in broadband.

"We are an institution that's committed to doing what's right for the state," he said.

The conference panelists and speakers also addressed the role of broadband access in higher education and access to news. U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Harrisonville, provided pre-recorded videos for the conference in which they talked about the importance of broadband access for rural Missouri.

"This is a Missouri issue," said Marshall Stewart, MU vice chancellor for extension and engagement. "That's not about rural. It's about Missouri."

Ten K-12 school buildings in the state don't have internet access, a fact Stewart said was unacceptable.

"Extension was important with rural electrification in Missouri," Stewart said. "We can do the same thing with broadband."

rmckinney@columbiatribune.com