The task force was created in May last year, but has yet to meet. Now its first meeting, set for Jan. 11, comes just four days before its first report to the Legislature is due. Also, its membership is changing.
(TNS) — The broadband task force created by a Kansas bill that took effect May 3, 2018, will meet for the first time Friday, Jan. 11, in the Statehouse in Topeka.
The task force faces a looming deadline. By law, it is required to submit to the Legislature "prior to Jan. 15, 2019," its initial report on its work and progress. The law even considered the possibility the task force could have all of its work completed before Jan. 15. If that didn't happen, the final report outlining recommendations should be submitted before Jan. 15, 2020, the law says.
Even before the task force conducts its first meeting, its leadership is on the brink of change.
Reno County's State Rep. Joe Seiwert, R-Pretty Prairie, is chairman of the Kansas House Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications Committee and co-chairman of this Kansas Statewide Broadband Expansion Planning taskforce. Seiwert's taskforce co-chairman, State Sen. Rob Olson, R-Olathe, is chairman of the Senate Utilities Committee until the new session opens at 2 p.m. Monday, Jan. 14, according to the Senate President's office. Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, changed committee assignments in December ahead of the new session, and she named State Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, as the incoming Senate Utilities Committee chairman, making him the anticipated next co-chairman of the broadband task force.
Olson told The News he will not be attending the Friday meeting. The News was unable to reach Masterson.
The task force was scheduled to meet in December and in early January. Seiwert and Olson jointly decided to cancel the Dec. 19 meeting because "of recent events and untimely changes," according to an email sent by Seiwert in December to the task force.
The agenda for Friday includes a discussion on what to expect at the next meeting, but that meeting is yet to be scheduled, said task force member State Rep. Annie Kuether, D-Topeka.
Mapping is a key need for the task force's planning and State Sen. Tom Hawk, D-Manhattan, who soon will be replaced on the task force by State Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, because of committee assignment changes, gives credit to Gov. Jeff Colyer for his efforts to map broadband service areas.
The Federal Communications Commission released a mobility fund eligibility map that showed Kansas as a largely connected state.
"I have driven all across this state, and I know how poor mobile coverage can be in some areas. That's why I was shocked to see that the FCC's Mobility Fund Phase II eligibility map showed almost zero eligibility for funding in Kansas," he said in an earlier press release.
The release described how the state, with a grant from the Information Network of Kansas, partnered with Connected Nation Inc. to gather data to challenge the FCC's data. Between June and September 2018, Connected Nation staff covered 15,620 road miles to conduct mobile network coverage tests in 56 counties — Reno County wasn't one — according to the release. Of the 187,397 tests, 64 percent qualified as failed. In November, Colyer announced the state had successfully challenged the FCC.
Separately challenging the FCC and its map was Kansas Farm Bureau. It was the first non-governmental agency that asked for and was approved to challenge the FCC, according to Rich Felts, president of Kansas Farm Bureau. Its membership conducted more than 6,000 mobile speed tests across the state.
Connected Nation has a contract to create a granular statewide broadband availability map that will be used by the task force.
Daniel Friesen, Buhler, is a member of the task force and co-chairman of the Kansas Independent Fiber Association. He thinks the mapping will do some good but the kind of wide-swath mapping that will be produced by Connected Nation can have issues, he said.
"In general, I believe a more granular address-by-address approach with a focus on customer data, not provider data — such as speed results and experience ratings directly from the end user — could provide even better data, but it also makes all of us broadband providers more vulnerable, too. Perhaps that's a good thing," Friesen said in a statement
Hawk said Connected Nation has a much better collection process than the FCC, but Hawk, too, is concerned about the mapping data. "The providers have not been very eager, I've heard, to share their data," Hawk said.
"There are multitudes of silos of broadband funding coming from the federal government," according to Kuether, but the task force doesn't even have information about all those dollars available.
Before funding is spent, the state needs to know where the gaps in service are, Hawk said, so the money isn't spent in areas where service is good.
"It's not what I expected," Finney County Commissioner Lon Pishny said of the task force's lack of meetings in 2018.
"It is disappointing that we didn't meet in the summer," said Pishny. "I'm very anxious to get going on this issue," he said.
Pishny is the Kansas Association of Counties' representative on the broadband task force. Broadband expansion is "a critical need" in rural western Kansas, he said. He considers it as particularly important for jobs and economic development and for telemedicine.
Kansas Farm Bureau's Felts is an ex-officio member of the task force, appointed by Colyer. Because of a scheduling conflict with American Farm Bureau Federation's annual convention, he won't be at the Friday meeting but Kansas Farm Bureau's Dan Strom will attend.
As a whole, the task force has moved probably a little slower than he expected, Felts said, but broadband expansion is a big and expensive endeavor, he said. He sees comparisons with rural electrification and determining what the role of government should be in broadband expansion.
Kuether thinks the timetables in the broadband legislation were "too ambitious." She also thinks any meeting prior to having any map would have been a waste of time and money.
"Bridging our state's broadband divide is such a critical priority for Kansas. I'm excited to get started working with my fellow task force members in crafting policy recommendations that will help bring better, faster internet to all Kansans," Friesen said.
©2019 The Hutchinson News (Hutchinson, Kan.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.