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Kansas Towns Struggle with Broadband Availability Challenges

Conversations about the need to improve rural broadband in the United States have been happening for many years, and as they do, towns in Kansas continue to struggle with speeds that make business and life difficult.

High-Speed Internet
Photo by Mikaela Shannon on Unsplash
(TNS) — The Internet service was so bad at Citizens State Bank in Cottonwood Falls, Kan., that its computers could hardly handle a routine update from Microsoft.

So not too long ago, bank vice president Matt Lindamood loaded up the PCs and drove them over to Emporia, 30 minutes away. There, he connected the desktop computers to a fiber Internet connection.

“What we couldn’t get done here happened in a matter of minutes there,” he said.

Such is life for a small-town Kansas bank — and most everyone else, for that matter — as politicians talk about the need to improve rural broadband year after year. As Lindamood can attest, there’s much more at stake beyond passing time on social media or watching Netflix.

The sluggish Internet available from AT&T had begun to affect business for his bank, which specializes in agriculture lending. It was so slow that it could not support an update to the software behind customers’ online banking services.

Residents in Chase County have less access to high-speed Internet than any other county in the eastern half of the state, according to the Kansas Office of Broadband Development.

The office estimates only 13 percent of homes have access to broadband speeds, which are generally defined as those 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.

There are Internet connections in Cottonwood Falls, population 858. But residents say what they get is slow — achingly so — and unreliable.

And local officials believe that their Internet problem is hampering the local economy: At least two businesses have changed plans to move into town, officials said.

Without a true high-speed Internet connection, Lindamood said the bank considered cutting some jobs in Cottonwood Falls and relocating them to other Kansas branches where they would have ready access to banking software.

The lack of reliable and high-speed Internet is a well known problem across rural America. But the gaps in access continue to widen as more and 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 baseline of what’s considered high-speed Internet.

Like healthcare, housing and education, lack of broadband is just one challenge facing the nation’s depopulating rural areas. While few expect high-speed Internet on its own to save those communities, advocates say they won’t have much of a shot without it.

Several federal programs exist to help subsidize new investments in broadband. But many experts say government efforts have so far fallen far short of the need. And Kansas has yet to get its own broadband funding program off the ground.

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

In a January news conference recapping his findings, Rogers characterized broadband as a basic necessity for modern life like other utilities — not a luxury.

“We’re very similar to the times in the ’30s before electrical and telephone service was provided to rural communities,” he said.

For providers, the problem 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 in monthly customer bills.

But Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly said those providers must do more: “Part of the real problem, if we’re honest with ourselves, is that there’s some conflict about this with providers and we’ve really got to bring people to the table and work this out. Enough is enough.”

So far, the most substantial proposal for a solution has come from a legislative task force seeking to expand broadband access. That group suggested, among other items, creating a $10 million grant program administered by the Kansas Department of Commerce.

That amount is unlikely to prove transformational. In Chase County alone, officials estimate it would cost some $14 million to bring broadband to all residents.

Lawmakers are still absorbing the task force’s recommendations. And officials with the commerce department, which oversees the state’s office of broadband development, did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Star.

In the January press conference, Kelly said there’s no way to grow rural Kansas — a cornerstone of the state’s new Office or Rural Prosperity — without high speed Internet.

“Obviously, money’s involved in all of this,” she said. “But it’s who would do it and how we would pay for it.”

Unplugging in the Flint Hills

Located about two hours southwest of Kansas City, Cottonwood Falls sits in the heart of the scenic Flint Hills.

After exiting the interstate, the Flint Hills Scenic Byway winds through a vast expanse of amber, rolling hills. Eventually, the 1872-era Chase County Courthouse peeks over the horizon, topped by an American flag waving in the wind.

The small town, named for the gushing falls just outside of town, has grown into a tourist getaway. Visitors come to tour the nearby Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. The National Park Service-managed site, where the buffalo still roam, offers a glimpse back to a time before farming and development forever changed the Kansas landscape.

It’s almost always economically risky to build out high-speed Internet in a tiny community. But this area’s limestone topography makes it even more difficult to install technologies like underground fiber lines.

The ultra-wide brick-paved Broadway Street in downtown Cottonwood Falls runs into the square housing the French Renaissance-style courthouse. The street is lined with boutiques, art galleries and stores that sell souvenir tea towels and straw hats.

Local tourism marketing materials call this a place to “restore, relax, revive.” So in some ways, the city has tried to create an advantage out of its slow Internet, said Jennifer Laird, the local economic development and tourism director.

But when it comes to everyday life, the Internet is nothing but an obstacle.

Laird said the community lost a photography studio and an online livestock sales company because of the sluggish connection. She said residential Internet speeds can’t meet requirements for most companies that offer remote work opportunities. And it can be hard for students to complete their homework once school lets out.

The local schools provide tablets to every student. At school, they have access to fiber. But students can struggle when they go home, particularly if they live in the outlying areas of the 800-square-mile school district.

“It touches every area of our lives,” Laird said. “It shouldn’t be a question. We don’t worry about people getting electricity, water or gas service.”

Broadband may not be a lure for new residents, but she said the lack of it is a huge deterrent.

She and others have been working for five years to find a new Internet provider for Cottonwood Falls. They’ve recruited a company to connect downtown businesses, but it’s unclear when service to homes might come online.

Laird said she believes the state is finally getting serious about the issue. But the broadband task force’s proposal for a $10 million grant program won’t come close to filling the void.

“It’s a drop in the bucket,” she said. “It’s going to require financial investment — substantial investment.”

The politics of broadband

While it can’t fix the entire problem, the state’s broadband task force believes the $10 million figure could help build out networks in a few smaller communities.

“$10 million isn’t that large of a number when you start talking about building fiber,” task force member Catherine Moyer, the CEO of Pioneer Communications in southwest Kansas, said at a January briefing with lawmakers in Topeka. “But it’s a number that is hard when you start to talk about where it comes from.”

The task force recommended utilizing existing state dollars to fund the program, which would require an equal match from sources other than state or federal government.

One lawmaker asked Moyer how many of the state’s 105 counties were adequately served. She said it’s difficult to tell given the unreliability of data and online maps surrounding broadband access.

The task force brought in a De Soto city council member who relied on mobile hot spots from three different cell phones — once the data maxed out on one, he would move on to the next. An online broadband map showed he had access to high-speed service at his home south of K-10.

“He does not have it,” said task force member Erik Sartorius, executive director of the League of Kansas Municipalities.

Despite a residential building boom, that outlying Johnson County community is only now undergoing a citywide fiber optic build out.

Sartorius said federal programs that currently exist are complex and oftentimes not worth the requisite time and effort to apply.

“It’s going to require cooperation, whatever goes forward,” he said. “And some of that you can legislate and some of that is relationships.”

But it’s unclear how a bill to fund rural broadband would fare in the Kansas Legislature.

Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat, questioned the longevity of new fiber networks given the rapid pace of technological change.

“I hope I’m wrong … but we’re talking about spending a lot of money building a huge infrastructure network that I suspect by the time I’m out of this Legislature will be obsolete,” he said.

A new subsidy program would essentially redistribute tax dollars from heavily populated areas like Sedgwick and Johnson counties. Sen. Julia Lynn, an Olathe Republican who chairs the Commerce Committee, said that’s already the model for funding rural schools.

“My fear is that what would happen if we subsidize broadband is that it will never be enough money,” she said. “So really what you’re doing is you’re just moving money from one part of the state to the other. And if you really want economic development to work, it needs to be done in such a way that it is sustainable. And I don’t think that model is sustainable.”

Keeping rural America alive

Even with declining populations, rural America still is economically important to the nation at large, said Mary Jane Stankiewicz, executive director of the Kansas Rural Independent Telecommunications Coalition.

It’s where grain and livestock are produced. And even farming has grown increasingly technology-driven with the addition of GPS-powered tractors and combines, advanced software that tracks crop yields and drones that help measure progress over a season.

“We definitely want and need that industry and multiple other industries to be able to get the kind of service they require,” Stankiewicz said.

She said the state’s 35 rural independent telecommunications companies serve half the land mass of Kansas. They’ve worked to improve Internet service through fiber expansions, she said. But they cannot build out rural networks alone.

Stankiewicz said states like Minnesota, Iowa and Tennessee have built programs to help fund rural fiber. But so far, a Kansas program remains only a recommendation.

“We don’t have a program and there’s no funding,” she said.

Family-owned MT Networks, formerly the Madison Telephone company, used funds from the 2009 stimulus package to aid its build out of a 200-square-mile fiber network in Greenwood County, which neighbors Chase County.

That company has expanded fiber access to other areas, including the towns of Burlington and Waverly, thanks to a $2.5 million commitment from a collection of local governments, libraries and a hospital.

MT Networks studied an expansion to Cottonwood Falls, but operations manager Rob McDonald said it could cost as much as a million bucks to bring a fiber line over — a cost the company could not bear on its own.

People from densely populated areas once helped subsidize rural electrification and rural telephone service. And he said broadband will require a similar collective push.

“Without it, we just won’t have an economy,” he said. “People won’t be able to live here and work at some point.”

The town with no broadband

The data surrounding Internet access is notoriously unreliable: Broadband maps can overestimate the access to high-speed Internet. In some cases, if one home has access, it will portray an entire census tract having access.

But in rural parts of the state, advocates say those maps can actually over-inflate who has reliable Internet as providers’ advertised speeds might overstate what’s available in real life.

In either case, the data seems fairly reliable for Meade County, where the state says 0% of households have access to broadband.

In the county seat of Meade, residents have access to the Internet through AT&T’s old landline telephone infrastructure. And City Administrator Dean Cordes said the massive company has no interest in installing fiber to provide faster service to the town of 1,565 people.

In a word, AT&T’s service is slow, Cordes said. It gets even worse when people come home on weekday evenings after work and school.

“If you wanted to watch a movie on Netflix, you can’t do it,” he said. “It just will not load.”

Meade’s hospital, schools and city hall are all connected to fast fiber service. But the city administrator said it’s too expensive to extend that service to homes without some sort of funding assistance.

“It works great. It’s fast and reliable,” he said of the service at his office in city hall. “But when you go home it makes you say, ‘Wow.’ The difference is night and day.”

Meade County is tiny — it’s 4,146 residents make up less than one-fifth of 1% of the state’s total population. The economy relies on agriculture and the local hospital is the city’s largest employer. The nearest movie theater or Walmart is a 40-mile drive away in Dodge City.

Cordes said it would cost an estimated $3.6 million to provide broadband service to every resident in town. The city’s annual budget is about $4.5 million.

“There’s no way we could afford that,” he said.

Nowadays, when many jobs can be performed from home, the Internet has become even more important. Cordes said the town has heard from some people interested in moving back to their hometown, but they’ve been foiled by the poor Internet service.

“That’s the one thing they have to have to run a remote business,” he said. “And it’s not available here.”

How the feds are helping

The issue is not unique to Kansas.

The federal government estimates that 80 percent of the 24 million American households without reliable, affordable high-speed Internet live in rural areas.

In November of last year, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson launched a new broadband grant program, which plans to award $5 million to bring high speed Internet to residents. The state estimated about one-fifth of Missourians lacked access to high-speed Internet.

“That’s the kind of problem that if you work toward solving it, it’s going to help with other problems, like retaining good talent or offering better health care and education for our communities,” Parson said in November.

The state will also receive more than $60 million from the federal ReConnect Pilot Program to expand access in several rural counties.

For years, state leaders across the heartland didn’t take the issue seriously enough, said Johnathan Hladik, policy director at the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Nebraska. But many have now identified broadband as a crucial asset needed to compete.

“If you’re a state who doesn’t do anything to get broadband, they’re not going to want to live in your state,” he said. “That’s just black and white and where we are right now.”

Galen Manners, who owns Wave Wireless in Parsons, Kansas, said the federal government has grown more responsive to the need.

He credits Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, who grew up in Parsons, for making rural broadband access a top priority. The FCC recently announced the $20.4 billion Rural Opportunity Fund, which it says could benefit as many as six million rural homes and businesses.

Wave Wireless recently won $5.2 million from the United States Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect Program to deploy 100-megabit fiber to rural Labette County in southeast Kansas. The funds, an equal split of grant and loan money, will bring high-speed Internet to 1,300 homes. To do so, Wave will install about 250 miles of fiber lines. Manners said it generally cost $20,000 to $30,000 per mile to install fiber, so the company will also invest its own capital to complete the project.

“Without the funding, there’s no way we could do it,” Manners said.

Wave generally provides what’s called fixed wireless, where an Internet signal is beamed over a tower to individual homes. That helps connect sparsely populated rural areas, where you might only pass one home on a mile-long road.

Manners said it’s easy for rural consumers to think progress has been too slow or incremental. But he said federal policy has quickly evolved to empower small companies like his eight-employee outfit.

“If you can’t work from home and you can’t watch Netflix, progress isn’t being made,” he said. “But from an industry perspective, I’ve never seen this kind of effort put in to service rural America. The funding that’s available now is phenomenal.”

Big versus small

The conundrum in Cottonwood Falls mirrors that of many communities served by legacy telephone companies, said Daniel Friesen, co-founder and chief innovation officer at Internet provider IdeaTek, which is based in Buhler, just outside of Hutchinson.

In Cottonwood Falls, the Internet runs over the same copper wiring that was originally built for landline telephones.

Nothing requires incumbent telephone companies to upgrade, but he said they should after receiving subsidies for years. Friesen pointed to data showing AT&T has received a total of $293 million from the Kansas Universal Service Fund, which was designed in 1996 to improve telephone access in rural areas, improve accessibility for the disabled and help aid low-income Kansans.

The company no longer receives those subsidies, but Friesen said it’s evidence that incentive programs are outdated. A similar federal program has changed to help fund broadband, but the Kansas fund only supports voice service.

CenturyLink, another descendant of the landline telephone companies, received more than $273 million from the fund since 1997, according to state records. And it’s still receiving funds.

“It’s frankly embarrassing that there are places in America that don’t have access to broadband today,” said Friesen, a member of the state’s broadband task force. “It’s a failure of a number of systems, including the subsidy program.”

Both AT&T and CenturyLink told The Star they remain committed to growing rural broadband access.

In a statement, CenturyLink officials said recent investments from the federal government would help expand Internet to hard-to-serve areas. The company said local policymakers should focus on “creating conditions that encourage investment while removing barriers.”

AT&T said it offers high-speed Internet to more than 28,000 “mostly rural locations” in parts of 67 Kansas counties through the FCC’s Connect America Fund.

“We’re committed to providing high-speed Internet to rural areas through wireless and wireline networks,” AT&T spokesman Mark Giga said in a statement. “From 2016-2018, we invested more than $725 million in our Kansas networks.”

AT&T was awarded about $19 million from that FCC fund to bring Internet to 35,375 households in Kansas by the end of 2020. But the commitment requires the company to provide speeds of 10 megabits. Well below the introductory speeds offered by many fiber companies, that’s a short-sighted investment, Friesen said.

“The thing that bothers us the most is the waste and the lack of emphasis on closing the broadband divide,” he said. “It’s essentially giving the same people the same money for the same thing that’s already been done.”

Still, the lack of interest from big providers has created opportunities for others to move in.

IdeaTek has built about 2,800 miles of fiber across Kansas. In Cottonwood Falls, the company is currently connecting downtown businesses. Friesen said the company hopes to expand to homes, but is waiting to see what kind of response it gets from locals first.

He said leadership in Cottonwood Falls helped recruit the firm to town. But it was easier to connect because of the company’s existing service to the local schools. Likewise, the backbone of downtown should make it more affordable to expand service to homes.

“If there’s good participation, it can work,” he said.

Half of downtown businesses have already signed onto IdeaTek, which hopes to launch that service by the end of March.

As it started on the wider downtown network, IdeaTek provided Citizens State Bank with a temporary high-speed connection because of its pressing need to update bank software.

At the Grand Central Hotel on Broadway, owner Suzan Barnes didn’t hesitate when asked whether she would sign onto the new service.

Over the years, she has gotten to know AT&T’s local repair crews well as they come by to address frequent Internet outages.

Her guests, who often come from larger cities like Kansas City, flock to the 10-room hotel for a quick getaway. It serves dinner on the main floor, which is decorated in rich Oak woodwork and vividly colored artwork depicting the Kansas prairie.

Her guests don’t prize wireless service as much as business travelers in a big city. But disruptions can make it difficult to complete basic accounting and payroll tasks.

“It can be difficult,” she said. “Thank God I know how to write checks.”

Barnes, who has been trying to sell her business for several years now, is thrilled to have access to more reliable and faster service. And it doesn’t hurt that IdeaTek’s prices promise to save her about $200 per month.

“If I could have switched 10 years ago to something else, I would have,” she said.

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