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Group Pushes for Broadband Solutions in Rural America

With their focus toward closing the rural connectivity gaps, Connect Americans Now wants to see affordable broadband everywhere by 2022.

(TNS) —  Earlier this month, a group of community leaders, rural advocates and innovators announced the launch of Connect Americans Now (CAN), a group committed to bringing rural Americans who lack connectivity to safe and affordable broadband Internet access into the fold by 2022.

The move is intended as an equalizer that would level the playing field on educational and economic opportunities that exist in communities with better connectivity. The new alliance will work with the Federal Communications Commission and other policymakers to ensure sufficient, unlicensed low band spectrum in every market in the country to enable nationwide high-speed broadband connectivity.

"All Americans — regardless of where they live — deserve access to high-speed Internet," said Richard T. Cullen, executive director of CAN. "Without a broadband connection, millions of students struggle to keep up with their assignments, Americans in rural areas are unable to fully utilize telemedicine, farmers are denied the promise of precision agriculture and businesses are unable to tap into the world of online commerce. Congress and the FCC must stand with rural America by allowing Internet service providers to deliver broadband via white spaces spectrum."

White space is a term used to describe unused broadcasting frequencies in the wireless spectrum. For example, when TV networks leave gaps between channels for buffering purposes, the space left is similar to what is used for 4G, the fourth generation of broadband cellular network technology. Thus, white space can be used to deliver widespread broadband Internet access.

The group includes partnerships in Kansas. Economic development groups in Lincoln, Rooks and Russell counties are all getting behind the effort. CAN and its advocacy campaign in Washington, D.C., are targeted at convincing FCC regulators to make enough unlicensed broadband spectrum available in each market for high-speed Internet access.

"The digital divide is holding back small, rural communities in states like Kansas," said Janae Tallbot, director of Russell County Economic Development. "Our businesses and our people don't have the same connectivity and access to the Internet as urban population centers, so we can't compete. Connect Americans Now plan to leverage TV white spaces to expand reliable Internet that will put our rural communities on the map."

The plan endorsed by CAN is projected to rapidly accelerate the deployment of high-speed Internet service — and reduce the cost — for 23.4 million rural Americans who live each day without high-speed broadband access by taking advantage of TV white spaces, which is unused but powerful bandwidth below the 700 MHz frequency range. Wireless signals in this range can travel over hills and through buildings and trees, making them ideal for broadband access in rural areas.

The initiative is expected to yield benefits for everything from telemedicine and precision agriculture to business development.

Shawna Deal, community relations coordinator at St. Catherine Hospital in Garden City, said any access to better broadband services would benefit local health care.

"We tried to do a live stream this morning and couldn't get through," she said. "It's technology. It's access to better speed. All of that makes a difference."

CAN reports that telemedicine could save lives and millions of dollars on an annual basis for underserved patients in rural hospitals who pay up to three times more for broadband than their urban counterparts. In Kansas, 64 percent of hospitals are in rural areas, and broadband connectivity allows patients to access specialists without hours of travel for patients or providers.

The Wichita County Health Center recently launched a new telemedicine service provided by a company called Avera eCare based out of Sioux Falls, S.D. In order to adopt the program, the center had to first secure a subterranean fiber-optic line routed from Hays, the nearest location with access to the service, to provide fast, uninterrupted Internet connectivity.

Teresa Clark, CEO of Wichita County Health Center, said the center has been working for "quite awhile" to obtain telemedicine services. She said the fiber line was funded through the center's involvement in the Kansas Healthcare Collaborative, a nonprofit dedicated to transforming health care through "patient-centered initiatives that improve quality, safety and value."

"It took quite awhile, actually three or four months, before we were able to do that," she said. "Our original plan for going live was in October. We weren't able to complete everything until December."

The program went live Dec. 6, and Clark said it gives patients access to a group of board-certified emergency room physicians and trauma nurses at Avera eCare's telemedicine hub. The physicians help providers at the Wichita County facility with medical procedures, diagnoses, documentation and patient transfers.

Clark said treatment of common patient issues in the area such as heart attack, stroke, sepsis and trauma requires critical timing, and specialists at the Avera eCare hub are just a call away.

"So what it does is it gives us the opportunity to give the most appropriate treatment as quickly as possible with a specialist right there," Clark said. "It just takes our service from really good to spectacular. It really makes a tremendous difference for what we can offer out here in rural western Kansas."

Clark said rural medical centers like hers have a "tremendous" reliance on good Internet connectivity.

"If your timing is bad and Internet connection is bad, it's basically like you don't have the service at all," she said. "Honestly, it's tremendously important for us to have good connection out here for us to continue to provide those types of services out here."

Though Clark described the broadband Internet connection in the area as "pretty decent," she says she's glad the telemedicine services are connected through their new fiber line and not through their broadband Internet connection.

House Majority Leader Jim Ward, D-Wichita, noted expanded high-speed broadband access for rural Kansas communities as a top priority in his gubernatorial campaign during an interview last week with The Telegram.

On Tuesday, Ward went further, explaining that statewide implementation of high-speed Internet access is critical for rural, urban and suburban areas.

"It disconnects communities that don't have it," he said. "Technology is changing at such a rapid pace. We have to build up the infrastructure so that all Kansans can participate in this new economy."

Ward says he's talked to businesspeople in big cities, small towns and suburbs. The consensus is that technology is driving how they do business.

"You look at desert areas of broadband — and not just rural areas; they're in some parts of urban centers, too. You look at some of the creative agricultural programs, and they all depend on the ability to use the Internet as a business tool, whether it be conservation of water or crop location," Ward said. "There's any number of things that happen. That's why I thought it was so important."

According to CAN, 6.5 million students across the country lack access to high-speed Internet, while 70 percent of teachers assign homework that requires a broadband connection. Meanwhile, more than 10,000 Kansas students live in rural areas.

A few bills have been introduced in the Legislature to address the issue, but Ward says they focus mostly on technicalities of broadband delivery.

"There's a lot of ideas, but there's not a vision," he said. "With the new Kansas economy, we need to be strategic because there's not unlimited resources, and that's what I think needs to happen next is some strategic planning to make sure that we build it out and we build it out right."

©2018 The Garden City Telegram (Garden City, Kan.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.