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Kansas Doubles Down on Broadband Investment with CARES Funds

Sixty-seven public and private projects funded by nearly $50 million in federal coronavirus relief grants could soon connect more than 70,000 households that have struggled with reliable Internet service for years.

by Kevin Hardy and Katie Bernard, The Kansas City Star / October 9, 2020
Shutterstock/asharkyu

(TNS) — After years of unreliable service, more than 70,000 households across Kansas could finally gain access to high speed Internet.

The access will come from 67 public and private projects funded by nearly $50 million in federal coronavirus relief grants, Gov. Laura Kelly announced at a news conference Thursday.

An additional $85 million will be spent over the next 10 years on improving statewide Internet access through the Kansas Department of Transportation’s Eisenhower Legacy program, Kelly said.

“(Broadband) is a singular tool that can close the equity gap between communities and bridge the urban-rural divide,” Kelly said.

The State Finance Council previously approved the use of federal coronavirus relief funding to improve broadband access. But on Thursday state leaders released a list of how and where those funds would be spent. The list includes allocations to install fiber optic cable for government buildings in Wyandotte County.

Commerce Secretary David Toland said the grants would help connect 76,735 households, 5,996 businesses and 636 anchor institutions like libraries, schools and health departments.

“These grants are the fuel that will help us expand broadband access more quickly, efficiently and effectively, across the state,” he said.

He said high-speed Internet access is a basic need for companies considering moving to Kansas.

“We’ve been talking about this for a long time,” Toland said. “And the time for talk is over.”

Transportation Secretary Julie Lorenz said her department planned to work with providers to reduce costs by allowing them to install fiber optic cable alongside highway projects when the ground is already dug up.

In addition to creating more access to high speed Internet, Lorenz said, 12-month vouchers would be provided to students to help them complete remote school work during the pandemic.

In July, Missouri announced it would spend nearly $50 million in CARES act funding to expand broadband access. The funds aimed to reach 10,000 new households and improve connection for telehealth, libraries and remote learning.

The lack of reliable, high-speed Internet across rural America is a well-documented problem. Gaps in access have only widened as more work, school and leisure activities migrate to the digital world. That has accelerated the need for ultra-fast speeds at a time when many parts of Kansas and Missouri have yet to reach the minimum of what’s considered high-speed Internet.

In his tour of 44 rural communities last year, Kansas Lt. Gov. Lynn Rogers heard repeatedly about challenges accessing high-speed Internet. The lack of quality and affordable service was a key obstacle he highlighted in a 67-page report about his listening tour.

In rural areas, the problem for Internet providers is simple math: in many areas, the cost to connect homes and businesses is so high that a company might never recoup its initial investment through monthly customer bills.

But it’s also an issue in urban and suburban communities. Many Kansas City area schools have struggled to keep students connected to virtual learning programs throughout the pandemic.

With notoriously unreliable data, it’s unclear just how many Kansans lack high-speed Internet. Broadband maps can overestimate access. In some cases, if one home has access, it will portray an entire census tract as covered. And advocates say providers’ advertised speeds might overstate what’s available in real life.

A map created last year by the nonprofit Connected Nation showed large swaths of the state were without broadband, which is generally defined as areas with download speeds of 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of 3 megabits per second. By comparison, Google Fiber offers speeds of up to 1,000 megabits (or 1 gigabit) in Kansas City.

The grants announced on Thursday will help healthcare providers offer telemedicine services. They will aid city efforts to improve underlying infrastructure and bring high-speed Internet to many homes for the first time.

The Unified Government of Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas will receive $2.8 million to install fiber for city buildings, public safety and emergency management services.

The city of Marion will receive $160,000 to install fiber through its industrial park.

The Moundridge Telephone Company will receive nearly $400,000 to bring gigabit speeds to the Pine Village retirement community, which is currently served by copper DSL lines.

In southwest Kansas, IdeaTek will receive $2.1 million to improve service in places like Kinsley, Greensburg and Bucklin. That Buhler-based firm has been a leader in expanding high-speed Internet to small communities.

On Thursday, Kelly also signed an executive order to create an office of broadband development in the Kansas Department of Commerce, which has a state broadband initiative.

The office, Kelly said, would work to facilitate and promote the expansion of broadband infrastructure in the state. The goal, she said, would be to determine who in the state does and does not have access to high speed Internet and then how to fill the gaps.

She said the pandemic underscored the increasing importance of broadband services for education, work and healthcare. But the state has long lacked a dedicated funding stream for broadband.

“As we see, the failure to invest put our rural and vulnerable communities at a stark disadvantage when the pandemic arrived. Virtual school, telemedicine appointments, working from home — these are all more difficult, sometimes even impossible to implement without a speedy and reliable Internet connection.”

©2020 The Kansas City Star, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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