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Kansas Hopes Broadband Initiative WIll Boost Availability, Service

After nearly four years of data collection, research and analysis, the project is expected to provide local governments with valuable information about expanding digital infrastructure -- without interfering with the marketplace.

Looking for ways to improve broadband availability and service without contradicting political ideology can be difficult. Kansas is one of several red states that has passed legislation restricting government involvement in the operation of broadband networks. Since initial passage, that legislation has been dialed back, but the average Kansan would still prefer the free market provide broadband services and leave government out of it.

On May 1, leaders of the 2010 Kansas Statewide Broadband Initiative (KSBI), announced a new project aimed at improving broadband service and availability, without betraying the political sensibilities of their constituency.

The project, known as the Local Technology Planning Pilot, will operate in four Kansas cities and county regions: Dodge City/Ford County, Fort Scott/Bourbon County, Norton/Norton County and Topeka/Shawnee County. The communities hope to better understand the broadband market by working with consultants, local stakeholders and the state. Officials expect the data will prove a valuable tool as cities look toward their broadband futures.

KSBI operates through funding from  the National Telecommunications & Information Administration and is in the final year of a $4 million grant. The project’s data and maps will allow the state to take a more proactive approach toward broadband adoption, rather than just waiting for the market to reach everyone, said Stanley Adams, KSBI director.

“The nice thing about broadband technology and the Internet is that it doesn’t matter if you’re in a rural community or not, you can access the global economy effectively,” Adams said. “The opportunity for us was to really engage with some of our local communities and stakeholders and give them a fresh perspective about their economic development planning process.” The expected takeaways from the surveys, data collection and mapping conducted through the program will allow cities to better plan for their economic futures by better understanding the broadband economy, and could also give communities a tool to entice providers to expand to their areas, Adams said.

The regions chosen for the 2014 pilots were selected because they represent a broad range of cities in the state, so others will be able to use the pilot city data as templates for their own communities, Adams said. “At the end of this process,we will be able to look at it and say, ‘Here are our four examples of communities in our state, the process they went through as they consider broadband technology and its implication on their economy," he said.

Data is incredibly valuable, according to Adams, and what they’re collecting in this four year initiative will allow the state and incumbent broadband providers to work together more effectively, which is good for everyone.

As for municipally-run broadband, the commerce department’s function is to facilitate the communities throughout the state to flourish. “The commerce department doesn’t advocate municipal networks or oppose municipal networks, so our view would be it’s up to communities to figure out what their needs are and how they go about implementing it,” Adams said, adding that they expect to see a wide range of solutions come from the many cities seeking broadband throughout the state.

Initiatives like KSBI are typically operated by organizations that are in a difficult position, according to Christopher Mitchell, director for Community Broadband Networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

“They are supposed to encourage better Internet access but have limited authority and politically cannot rock the boat in terms of publicizing how poorly some incumbent operators are treating communities,” Mitchell said. “In most cases, these state agencies do not make much of a difference because in order to encourage investment, you have to step on the toes of powerful interests that like the status quo.”

Municipally-run networks are allowed in Kansas, but there aren’t many of them. Chanute, Kansas, a city of less than 10,000, has connected its businesses to a broadband network to keep them from leaving. This is a trend that can be seen in pockets throughout the country, Mitchell said, but lobbyists continue to push laws forward that would restrict local governments from competing with the commercial marketplace.

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.