BOWLING GREEN, Mo. -- When too many smart devices go online at St. Clement School, the download speeds slow to a crawl.
"It's never fast enough," said Principal Laurie Schuckenbrock. "If there are just one or two of us using our smart boards, it's not too bad, but when we're all on, it slows everybody down."
St. Clement subscribes to a satellite internet service. The school is about 3 miles south of Bowling Green near U.S. 61, and internet service is spotty in Pike County.
Schuckenbrock said there is a fiber optic line buried near the highway that easily could provide the internet needs of the school, but it would cost thousands of dollars to tap into the line. That's a cost the small elementary and preschool cannot afford.
Internet connections are slowly expanding into rural areas, mirroring the spread of electricity in the last century.
Federal Communications Commission statistics indicate that 61 percent of rural areas have access to fixed high-speed internet services and high-speed mobile services. Under that assumption, there would be 39 percent of rural areas that are unserved or underserved.
Yet when FCC staffers tried to put together a national map showing internet coverage, it looked as if there were only isolated spots without service. Elected officials wanted to know why areas with little or no coverage looked as if they had internet service.
What they discovered was that FCC data is listed by census block, and if even one home in that block has internet service, the agency was treating it as though every home had it.
"Their maps aren't accurate," said Louis Riggs, who won the 5th District seat in the Missouri House on Nov. 6. Riggs became a passionate advocate for high-speed internet while serving on the Joint Broadband Committee of the Northeast Missouri Development Partnership. Now that he'll be in the Legislature, Riggs has made broadband internet access in Northeast Missouri one of his top goals.
"It's one of the worst-served areas in the state," and broadband is needed to "bring our rural counties into the 21st century," Riggs said.
Cooperatives add fiber
Jim Broemmer, CEO of Adams Telephone Cooperative in Adams County, Ill., has overseen the roll-out of fiber internet service within the co-op's service area.
"By the end of next summer, 100 percent of our towns and rural areas will have access to fiber in the home," Broemmer said.
At this time there are about 10,000 broadband connections within the Adams Fiber network, and the difference is huge.
The FCC defines broadband service as one that offers a minimum of 25 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads. Adams Fiber offers 1 gigabit downloads -- 40 times as fast as the FCC benchmark -- and 1 gigabit uploads -- more than 300 times faster.
"I know personally, from when we had wireless or DSL hookups, our Netflix streaming had to have at least 5 Mbps or you'd see the circle spinning as it buffered," Broemmer said.
"Now my wife and I can be watching (streaming) TV, our son can be gaming and our daughter watching a different program on her streaming device without any trouble. Everybody is free to enjoy what's making them happy," Broemmer said.
This same kind of build-out is taking place elsewhere.
Ralls County Electric Cooperative headquartered in New London, Mo., started installing a fiber optic network in October 2010 and completed all membership connections in 2014. RCEC became the first Missouri electric distribution cooperative to offer service throughout its footprint. The cooperative now provides broadband, 325 streaming television channels and telephone services.
Ralls Electric has connected fiber into New London, Saverton and will soon connect to Perry.
Mark Twain Telephone, headquartered in Hurdland, also is in the middle of a fiber optic build-out operation.
General Manager Jim Lyon said the $48 million service upgrade started in 2017 and was expected to take 10 years. Now Lyon thinks fiber optic might be installed throughout the 1,031-square-mile service area within eight years.
The village of Leonard, in northern Shelby County, has a complete fiber optic system with speeds of up to 1 gigabyte. The community of Durham in Lewis County is nearing completion of fiber optic connections.
Lyon said fiber connections bring value to property in rural areas.
"We have real estate people from cities calling up to see if there is any fiber connections at a location. If there isn't, they might not want to buy because they want to stay connected at their hunting cabin," Lyon said.
Some Mark Twain Telephone customers work at home for companies such as Blue Cross Blue Shield or other businesses that require quality online connections. Those customers often sign up for business plans that offer faster upload speeds and other options.
In addition to the hard-line network, Mark Twain has wireless internet services in some higher population areas. One neighborhood of Hannibal has access to 50 Mbps downloads. Several other communities get up to 25 Mbps downloads.
Cities explore options
Canton Mayor Jarrod Phillips said a new fiber system should be going online this month.
Mid-Atlantic Broadband is putting in the system after learning there were lots of potential customers looking for high-speed service there.
"I see fiber being just as important as water and all the other essential services we provide these days. A lot of people depend on this for their jobs and their livelihoods," Phillips said.
Within Canton, Phillips said Ursa Farmers Co-op needs high-speed internet to monitor grain prices and make trades. U.S. Wellness Meats, just west of U.S. 61 and outside city limits, takes lots of online orders and is trying to get high-speed connections.
"We've got several people who work from their homes, and they've got to have better upload speeds," Phillips said.
Ron Neff runs the Smalltown Handyman business and has benefited from online advertising.
"I'm going to Barry (Ill.) today to work on something at the Wendy's there" thanks to his online presence, Neff said recently.
On an average day 46 people use the computers available at the Quincy Public Library. Many more connect through the library's wireless system with their own devices.
Katie Kraushaar, manager of information services, said the internet connections are vital for many library patrons.
"We have had many instances when patrons have returned to tell us about jobs they received because we helped them find the applications, they were able to get utilities activated before it got cold, or because we showed them how to use a scanner or fax machine," Kraushaar said.
Others say they've got computers at home but need to use printer systems at the library to print W2 employment forms, pay stubs, printing labels or online banking records.
That's just a small sample of the things that require fast, reliable internet connections.
Broemmer said the "internet of things" is rapidly expanding and shows no sign of stopping.
"There are smart microwaves where you can take a product and scan the bar code label and the microwave will know how long to cook it," Broemmer said.
There are lots of other online connections that can transform a home.
Doorbell cameras allow a homeowner to capture video and high-quality still photos of anyone who approaches a house. That can help catch thieves and vandals, as well as let absent residents know when friends stop by unexpectedly.
Wireless locks on doors can allow those smart homes to let children into the house when parents are called away unexpectedly.
Thermostats can be adjusted to make a living area more comfortable in anticipation of the homeowner's arrival.
"We've not even begun to scratch the surface of the internet of things," Broemmer said.
Phone service speeds
In addition to the fixed-line internet connections, smart phones and other wireless technology can offer options.
The FCC considers mobile services to be high speed if the advertised speeds are at least 5 Mbps for downloads and 1 Mbps for uploads. But the median speed is supposed to be 10 Mbps/3 Mbps or higher.
As with the FCC's high-speed internet maps, the LTE (long-term evolution) maps for mobile devices have been called into question.
Industry experts say the next-generation wireless networks powered by 5G mobile data will be installed in major cities long before the technology spreads to rural areas.