(TNS) — Broadband Internet services are available to nearly everyone in Kansas, but more than half aren't using it.
The message about availability, though, is getting lost in the ether.
Hardwire broadband services are now available to more than 90 percent of Kansas residents, yet less than 60 percent are buying it, according to participants at a broadband symposium recently in Wichita sponsored by the South Central Kansas Economic Development District.
Still, that leaves hundreds of thousands of Kansans with no access, except through their wireless services.
Some providers indicated they're willing to work to get broadband to nearly any business in the state that wants it, but several community officials say many perceive just the opposite.
Meanwhile, Kansas residents living miles from existing service have received no signals of such commitments.
Officials with AT&T, Cox, KsFiberNet, Buhler-based IdeaTek and a couple of rural telephone companies attending the event said they could do a better job getting the message to potential customers and closing the gap to access.
Three key statistics tell about broadband in Kansas, said Mike Scott, president of AT&T Kansas:
The percent of Kansas homes with access to fixed broadband at the minimum speed threshold set by the FCC, enabling a user to receive 10 megabits per second (Mbps) of data and to send out a minimum of 1 Mbps. "In Kansas, 97.3 percent of households have 10/1 access," Scott said. "That's better than the U.S. average of 95.9 percent."
Rural access is also higher "In Kansas 90.7 percent of rural residents have access, vs. 83.5 percent in the U.S. For urban, those percentages are 99.7 and 99.2 percent, respectively."
Though the majority of Kansans have some access, less than 57 percent use the service, which is lower than the national average.
Where higher speeds are available, usage percentages are even smaller. For 25 Mbps service, the take rate is about 34 percent, and for 100 Mbps service, just 14 percent.
The company representatives didn't delve into the reasons.
If counting wireless service, provided primarily through cell phone services, 99.4 percent of Kansas has coverage, Scott said.
"We can put in all the fiber and all the cell towers we can, blanketing the state, but adoption is a big part of it," Scott said. "Just because we put it in and make a sizeable investment, doesn't mean customers will pick it up. We have to ensure a good return on investment ... That's the sad fact, but the economic reality of the business when we decide where to deploy."
Colleen Jennison, vice president of Cox Communication's Kansas market, agreed her company could be doing a better job telling its story.
"The take rate is not as high as we'd like it to be," she said. "We do have areas of challenge, but there's not anything in Hutchinson we don't have in LA or Chicago."
Like Scott, she said return on the dollar plays a crucial role in deciding where those dollars are spent, not just in Kansas, but nationwide.
"It's important to recognize we are a 100 percent private capital company," she said. "When we are making decisions about where to make an investment, that's what is making the decision."
Even within her company, Kansas is competing with other states for development dollars, Jennison noted.
The company has a goal, however, of making 1-gigabyte service available everywhere in the state it now serves by the end of the year -- except two cities, which will see the upgrades in 2019.
The message the pair relayed to businesses was a little different.
If businesses are interested in high-speed service, the Cox and AT&T representatives both emphasized, in most cases, the companies or communities simply need to reach out.
"We have 19,000 business locations in Kansas that have access to fiber, from northwest to southeast, in all four corner of the state," Scott said. "Perception is the problem, (the perception) that Kansas doesn't have what companies think they need. If a company needs high-speed Internet ... we're going to get it to them."
"Newton is a good example of how we advance broadband partnerships," Jennison said. "In the industrial park on the east side of the community, they had a site selector come in. They called us, we met and discussed how to get fiber-based broadband out to meet their needs. We'll do this in all our communities."
"Shame on us if we're not giving you the information you need to showcase our business," she said. "I commit to you we're happy to do that. Help us tell a good story so I can get the dollars I need to invest as well."
If a city is willing to partner, to "spend money on its side," that makes it even easier, Jennison said.
"If you've got to identify the top five things you need, you don't need a study to tell you," she said. "And if dollars are available for a study, maybe they're available for a public/private partnership."
Not all presenters at the conference, however, were quite as positive about service efforts in Kansas and the approach by the largest providers.
"First I think we need to confront the brutal facts," said Daniel Friesen, chief innovation officer at IdeaTek. "There is a lot to be proud of with all the investment, but we've got a ways to go. The U.S. is ranked 9th in the world. We should be first. We're an embarrassing 46th in rural broadband. We're just ahead of Albania. Kansas ranks 40th in the union for overall connectivity."
The statistics cited by Scott also reveal nearly 10 percent of rural residents in the state have zero hardwire broadband access.
"In Kansas, that's a lot of people," Friesen said. "We take 10 percent, and keep pushing that every time we upgrade and give subsidies. We've never focused on closing that gap. A half million Kansans have no access to high speed; 200,000 have no option of a wired provider, they have to buy a phone line. Ninety-five percent sounds good, but there are millions out there who don't have good service. That's why we're here today."
AT&T is participating in the effort to get broadband to unserved rural areas by participating in the Federal Communications Commission's Connect American Fund (CAF) grant, Scott said.
The company will spend $19 million in Kansas over the next six years "allowing us to reach 35,000 Kansas homes and businesses," he said. It's part of $427 million in CAF funding the company received nationwide.
The company is spending a very small part of that in two corners of Reno County, CAF maps show.
The technology they're using in rural areas is a fixed wireless Internet that sends signals through the air, using cell towers, which are picked up by small base stations "the size of a pizza box," Scott said, and receivers on customer's homes.
Scott would not say whether the AT&T planned to bid in the upcoming CAF II "reverse auction," which includes coverage for about 60 percent of rural Reno County that the first grant awards didn't cover because costs were too high.
"We're in the quiet period and cannot discuss it," Scott said after the symposium.
"Admittedly Cox is not on the forefront at expanding into rural areas," Jennison said. "We are looking, though, at unserved and underserved areas. CAF funds will be considered."
Friesen suggested the government stop subsidizing "programs that don't have long-term viability," but instead commit a significant portion of those dollars to installing fiber optics.
The Kansas legislature created a broadband task force this session to look at expansion issues in the state.
"One area we're hopeful, with the task force, is that they've got the right people on this, to have the right conversations," Jennison said. "Cox 100 percent supports getting to the underserved. If it can't be done with private capital, we feel it should happen, though we'd rather not see subsidy dollars go there."
The state task force is a great idea, said Mike Brigman, president of KsFiberNet, "to bring together economic development folk and service providers to share challenges and ideas, to creatively work collaboratively."
There is a public misperception, however, Brigman said, "that capital is more freely available. There is a disconnect there of what our capabilities are."
Some of the biggest obstacles to deployment, he said, are often municipalities "those cracking the whip on us, while on the other side holding back permits and throwing other hurdles in our way."
"If we have them in the room things will go a lot faster," Brigman said. "Municipalities are a challenge to work with. We just ask for some consistency and more flexibility to develop new innovative projects. Regulations are the quickest way to stifle."
The only way to extend broadband out in rural areas is to reduce cost, Friesen said.
"Part of that is reducing right-of-way costs," he said. "KDOT has a lot of opportunity with right-of-way to allow more fiber in public rights-of-way. That will decrease our cost and let us get out to more rural areas... Access to more KDOT right-of-way is our number one priority to get change."
Permitting barriers also need to be reduced, Scott said.
"For 5G wireless, you need small cell deployment," he said. "It's hard for providers to have access to the right-of-way, to pole structures. It's cumbersome to gets permits and applications approved in some cities."
It's also essential, Jennison said, to recognize broadband expansion "as economic development and make sure you're not trying to tax it."
"It's important for it to be there, to be partners," she said. "We'll pay our fair share of franchise fees, but to the point of small cells, don't look at it as a revenue stream, but as a need for business to be successful in a community."
"It's not us trying to make more money," Friesen said. "It's us trying to get to an area and have a business solution that works. We need people like you guys to push the legislature and to push your local communities to see the importance of it."
"I think a lot of the time, local government and state government get defensive when you talk about reducing regulation and control. But I guarantee if you took a vote it would be for more broadband versus less regulation of providers."
There are few differences between the big providers and rural telephone companies providing broadband access, noted Kendal Mikesell, president and CEO of Southern Kansas Telephone.
The most significant is that they are regulated by the Kansas Corporation Commission and Federal Communications Commission, and are "carriers of last resort," meaning they are required to provide service within their footprint, "regardless of cost."
That also allows them to tap Universal Service Fund dollars and apply for USDA loans and grants.
That's why 90 percent of households in SCT territory have 10 to 25 Mbps, 80 percent have 25 to 100 Mbps and nearly half 100 Mbps to 1 Gbps.
While AT&T and Cox can apply for federal subsidy dollars, they are not eligible for Universal Services Funds or USDA dollars.
IdeaTek, though now eligible to bid in the upcoming CAF II reverse auction, did not qualify for the earlier CAF I dollars or receive USF or USDA funds.
©2018 The Hutchinson News (Hutchinson, Kan.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.