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Size of providers factors into Kansas rural broadband divide

In pushing work and school online, the COVID-19 pandemic brought fresh attention to the digital divide between those with fast internet and those who struggle to link up to it. Nearly one in 10 households in Kansas can’t access the internet. Federal and state officials are aggressively trying to bring about gains this fall, but will Kansans exercise enough leadership to give the issue the sustained attention it will require? 

Lauren Clary still gets a sinking feeling whenever someone asks her if she’s watched a popular show on
Netflix.

“I tell them, ‘Nope, I don’t have the internet at home,’” says Clary, who lives on a rural property outside
Wichita near Lake Afton with her husband
and young child. “It’s amazing how many people are shocked
when you tell them that.”

But the Clarys are far from alone in having no or minimal internet access at home.

About 95,000 Kansas households have no access to the internet or lack what has been defined as the bare
minimum of internet access, says state Rep. Mark Schreiber, an Emporia Republican and a member of the
Statewide Broadband Expansion
Planning Task Force.

A hookup to fast internet has become so crucial to daily life that Kansans are finding creative workarounds if it’s not readily available, from turning their phones into hotspots to finding someplace nearby where they can access Wi-Fi.

If Clary needs something stronger than the cell phone hotspot she can access in her yard, that means driving to her mother’s house in Wichita. Some schools in rural areas allow students to access their Wi-Fi from the parking lot on evenings and weekends. Businesses such as coffee shops that offer open signals also draw users, whether they’re open or not.

The coronavirus has raised the heat on the adaptive challenge of too many Kansans being without high speed internet at home. In the midst of lockdowns that forced people to work from home and students to finish their school year remotely, a lack of broadband access quickly became a problem that couldn’t be ignored.

“The silver lining of the pandemic is that all of a sudden, people went ‘This is really important, and we want it and need to make it happen,’” says Catherine Moyer, chief executive officer of Pioneer Communications in Ulysses.

But for how long? More state and federal funding has been made available to communities, but it won’t be nearly enough to fully remedy the problem.

Furthermore, expansion is intertwined with a host of issues about how best to make it happen. Should everyone have access to the same basic level of service and pay similar rates no matter where they live? Should areas of the state where it’s more cost-effective to provide service subsidize those areas where it’s not? Should broadband remain a private service provided by businesses, or should it be considered something more like electricity, a necessity supplied by utilities that usually have no competition and face heavy government regulation?

And finally: Do policymakers have the political will to invest the resources necessary to expand access at a time when state revenues have been gyrating?

These questions remain mostly unanswered even as Kansas  embarks upon expansion. But it is clear that the pandemic has elevated the issue to a level of prominence it couldn’t claim before COVID-19. 

“Broadband is an interesting juxtaposition of opportunity,” says Stanley Adams, director of the Office of Broadband Development for the Kansas Department of Commerce. “Because what’s happened is a lot of folks who had a cursory understanding that broadband was important now have much richer context. It used to be when I would go up, for example, and talk to policymakers, there will be a question or two around ‘Why should we be investing in broadband so that somebody can watch Netflix? That doesn’t make sense. That doesn’t seem reasonable.’ You’d have to explain, ‘Well, actually, it’s a lot more than that.’”

The pandemic has demonstrated that in a way no presentation to a legislative committee could have, Adams says. The question now isn’t whether broadband networks should be improved – it’s how much and how soon.

“What we have right now is an opportunity in the next several months to leapfrog the state ahead, potentially, a decade in terms of making progress on broadband,” Kansas Secretary of Commerce David Toland says. “It’s both a very exciting time and it’s also a little bit harrowing to look at how much work needs to be done in this short window. But I’m confident that we can do it.”

ECHOES OF HISTORY

State policy is just one factor in the equation. Across Kansas, small and rural communities were making progress before the pandemic. Rawlins County has gone from one of the state’s most unwired places to the host of a burgeoning internet-dependent manufacturing business targeting a niche in precision agriculture with the help of a small fiber provider. Tiny Timken in Rush County offers service that rivals or exceeds what can be found in the Kansas City suburbs. But such gains raise questions about what role the biggest providers should be playing in broadband expansion. Even as they laud the efforts of the locals, rural Kansans express disappointment with the level of service they’re receiving from corporate behemoths such as AT&T.

The trajectory of broadband’s expansion in Kansas is reminiscent of other significant advances in the state’s development. As railroads pushed west across the nation in the latter half of the 1800s to connect the coasts – and, more important, to open markets – the fortunes and futures of fledgling farm towns flourished or faded depending on whether the railroad arrived or passed them by.

The Rural Electrification Act of 1936, part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s effort to lift the nation out of the Great Depression, brought electricity to rural America. Federal loans paid for the installation of electrical distribution systems, run by rural electric cooperatives – most of which still exist today.

The Communications Act of 1934, another piece of FDR’s New Deal legislation, established the concept of making basic telephone service accessible and affordable to everyone. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 rewrote that legislation to account for the dawning of the digital age. It established a Universal Service Fund, which was supplied by fees added to long-distance bills. Money from that fund was then used to provide service in high-cost areas of the country.

Rural telephone companies, many of them operating as nonprofits, have used money from that fund to bring fiber to their customers.

“I can proudly say that 90% of our area has fiber to the home,” says Beau Rebel, general manager of Golden Belt Telephone Association, now known as GBT, which is based in Rush Center – a town of fewer than 200 people just south of Hays. “We’re working on (reaching) 100% every day.”

In many cases, fiber has been buried along railroad right-of-ways established in the 1800s. Golden Belt is one of 36 rural cooperatives and telecoms in Kansas that together cover about half of the state’s area. It has brought fiber to hamlets as small as Timken, a town of a few dozen people northwest of Great Bend.

“I was absolutely flabbergasted that the internet here is so good,” says Angelia Frazier, who moved from outside of Leavenworth to Timken with her husband, Jonathan, when she got a job with the Department of Children and Families.

It gave them a chance to be closer to Jonathan’s father, who is 87 and lives in Ness City. Unsure whether she would work out of Great Bend or Hays at the time she received the job, they found a home in Timken because it was roughly midway in between the two DCF regional offices she was being considered for and housing was affordable. “Other than the fact that I can’t run to QuikTrip and get me a doughnut, it’s not that bad here,” Angelia Frazier says.

During the pandemic, she’s worked from home with no connectivity issues. That wouldn’t have been possible at their old place near Leavenworth, she says.

“If we still lived there, I could not do my job from home,” she says. “I’d have to go sit in a parking lot somewhere all day or at a McDonald’s.”

One of the reasons Invena Corp., a design-build manufacturing and distribution company in Eureka, acquired Emergency Fire Equipment in Mayfield was because the town of about 110 people in Sumner County has fiber, says Matt Wilson, Invena’s president and CEO.

“Fiber just got here last year,” Wilson says of Eureka, which is served by AT&T. “It’s atrociously expensive.”

Wilson called the disparity in service between the areas served by local phone companies and those by large providers is “just unbelievable.”

There’s a lot of talk, Moyer says, about the urban-rural divide – about how urban America gets all these great things and rural America doesn’t. When it comes to telecom and broadband service, she sees a rural-rural divide.

“There’s a rural divide between companies,” she says, between customers served by local providers and those served by large companies.

Large providers still cover significant swaths of Kansas. The expectation, rural cooperative executives say, was that those companies would take the profits they earn in dense population centers and use them to provide the same level of service to rural areas in their service territory.

The reality, they say, is that those publicly traded providers have turned those profits into dividends and healthier bottom lines that please shareholders and Wall Street. While that’s understandable from a business perspective, the executives say, it leaves some rural sectors with poor service.

 

A REQUIREMENT FROM DAY ONE

A strong broadband network has the potential to revive rural Kansas communities, officials say – and that’s not just wishful thinking. Over the past few years, class sizes for the Rawlins County School District in Atwood have been larger in the elementary school than the classes graduating from high school.

The reason, officials say, is the arrival of young families drawn to work for SureFire Ag Systems, which manufactures customizable liquid application and metering systems – a niche in the blossoming precision agriculture sector. The company, based at an old farmstead four miles outside of town, has grown from seven full- and part-time employees in 2007 to more than 60.

Most of those employees, co-founder Josh Wolters says, have ties to Atwood and decided to return home from cities such as Denver and Kansas City because they wanted their children to have a better quality of life. None of it would be possible, Wolters says, without the fiber-fed wireless service they get from a local provider.

“It was a requirement from day one,” Wolters says of reliable high-speed internet access. “It’s an absolute necessity” for the business, which has customers nationwide and international sales that are expected to reach $1 million this year.

Places such as Wamego are also getting longing glances from people elsewhere. Entrepreneur Matt Moody first moved to Wamego because he was working for a company in Manhattan and didn’t want to live in a college town.

When he launched Bellwethr, a customer conversion and retention platform powered by machine learning, Moody realized he didn’t have to leave the small-town life he enjoyed, because Wamego had fiber to provide reliable high-speed internet and a great co working space to nurture his fledgling business. The company has grown to 12 employees since it was launched four years ago. While most of them work at Bellwethr’s Kansas City branch, he says, “We have more and more team members who are intrigued by the small town. But they could only come to a place like Wamego due to high-speed internet.”

For the state to capitalize on attracting business and talent to Kansas in the wake of the pandemic, Moyer says, leaders will need to change the way they view success.

“Our leadership, our county leadership, our economic development folks and whatnot are now working together rather than trying to cannibalize each other,” Moyer says. “It’s better today than it’s ever been, and I’m hopeful that that proves to be a boon to us.”

There’s an awareness, she says, that a business may open in one county but its employees may want to live in a smaller town or rural property in a neighboring county in sparsely populated southwest Kansas. That spillover effect benefits the region, not the spot where the business opened.

“Having those conversations and working together and then not only just doing it on a local level, but doing it on more of a regional level, which southwest Kansas has really started to do, has created benefits,” Moyer says. “Rather than fighting each other, they’re working together now.”

Other states have made great progress by utilizing public/private partnerships, says Adams, the state’s broadband director, and Kansas would do well to emulate that. The moment, he said, calls for visionary leadership.

“I think there’s the tactical leadership – What is it going to take to get this area linked up and connected?” Adams says. “But I think the broader leadership opportunity for us as a state is to start painting a picture for where we want to be long term, relative to connectivity. Is connectivity going to be just this kind of thing that we give lip service to? Is it going to be something that differentiates us from our peer states?”

Small town shops, farmers and ranchers all increasingly depend on high-speed internet to do business. Having fiber, Wolters says, means SureFire Ag’s market is global, not just farmers within 100 miles. Fiber is a must for farmers engaged in precision agriculture, officials say.

Angelia and Jonathan Frazier were able to settle in the Rush County hamlet of Timken because the local independent telephone company, GBT, provides excellent broadband service, allowing them to telecommute.

‘HORRIBLE’ BROADBAND IN THE STATE’S MOST UNDERSERVED COUNTY 

Jeff Zortman uses precision agriculture to maximize yields and minimize costs on the family farm in Meade County. The farm has been in the family since Solomon Zortman homesteaded 160 acres in 1884. Since then, it has grown to 6,000 acres.

Farmers may have been able to deduce how to make the most out of their land when farms were small, Jeff Zortman says. But that’s just not possible anymore.

“It just comes down to paying more and more attention to detail,” Zortman says. “Farmers have traditionally treated a whole field or even a whole farm all the same.”

In contrast, Zortman uses soil samples taken little more than two acres apart to track soil nutrients and monitor how much fertilizer and water is needed. He’d like to specialize it in even smaller increments than that. Zortman had to take “extraordinary measures” to have access to fiber in Meade County, however. He learned a fiber line being laid to the school was being buried next to his house in Fowler.

“What can I do to get this?” he asked the crew.

“We paid way too much to get this to my house,” he now admits.

Zortman then set up an antenna at his house and pointed it toward  a tower at his father’s house, which in turn feeds a signal to the farm shed five miles outside of town. The network doesn’t just allow him to manage the land, he says. His John Deere equipment is monitored by cell signals to let him know when issues arise or servicing is needed.

Zortman is an exception in Meade County, though. While farming is the county’s largest industry, most farmers there can’t practice precision agriculture because internet access is all but nonexistent. A state broadband study revealed Meade is the most underserved county in Kansas.

“We absolutely have horrible, and I say horrible broadband connectivity here in Meade County,” says state Rep. Boyd Orr of Fowler, who represents the 115th District.

Orr blames that on the fact that Meade County is served by AT&T.

“I understand that their return on investment … is not good coming into an area like Meade County,” Orr says. “If electricity had been treated the same way as we treated broadband, we probably still wouldn’t have electricity in Meade County.”

Internet access is so unreliable, Orr says, that students who live in rural areas of the county drive to the school or library on evenings and weekends to log into the Wi-Fi in order to do their schoolwork, coverage that’s provided not as a courtesy but as a necessity.

Some homes have good broadband, Orr says. “But you get outside the towns, and it gets pretty poor very quickly.”

AT&T provides phone service in Meade County, Orr says, but not broadband service. AT&T also has Rawlins County in its service area.

“That was comparable to losing the lottery,” Wolters says. “They invest absolutely nothing.”

When asked, AT&T officials would not address specific coverage questions. Through the Connect America Fund initiative in 2017, AT&T committed to offering high-speed access to 35,000 rural homes and small businesses in Kansas by the end of this year

“We are on track to reach this goal,” spokesman Mark Giga said in an emailed response to questions.

But high-speed internet was defined as a download speed of 10 megabits per second and an upload speed of 1 megabit per second at the time and that capacity could not handle the demands experienced during the pandemic.

AT&T is expanding access to mobile wireless broadband in rural communities in its coverage area, including through the buildout of FirstNet, the new high-speed, nationwide wireless broadband network dedicated to public safety.

The upgrades should strengthen signals, expanding access to those lacking it and improving it for those with poor service, but Giga, the AT&T spokesman, couldn’t provide specifics on how much of an improvement it would be.

Even before the emergence of COVID-19, state leaders were ramping up efforts to expand broadband access. The Statewide Broadband Expansion Planning Task Force was set up in 2018 to explore how to expand access to broadband and keep it affordable. After meeting for 18 months, the task force presented a series of recommendations to the Legislature, but only one got as far as the committee level before being shelved by the pandemic.

The 2020 Legislature did approve the Eisenhower Legacy Transportation Program, a 10-year plan that includes gradually increasing investment in broadband infrastructure.

The effort allocates $5 million a year for the first three years of the plan and then $10 million annually through the remainder of the program’s lifespan, for a total expenditure of $85 million.

While it’s not much compared with the need, Schreiber says, “It’s a lot more than what the Legislature has approved in the past.

“This is one of those things that I don’t think we can solve with one fell swoop,” Schreiber says. “It’s going to take time, and that’s why we have to prioritize: Identify where the weak areas are, prioritize which ones we’re going to build out to … and work that through a methodical process.”

One of the task force’s recommendations is to lift Kansas to the top 25% of states for broadband access. Broadband Now ranks Kansas 28th in access, prices and speeds. Most of the top 10 states are in New England, while Midwestern states such as Nebraska, Iowa and Arkansas rank near the bottom. Sunflower State neighbors Colorado and Oklahoma rank just above Kansas, while Missouri lags behind

 

AN AGGRESSIVE PUSH BEGINS

How fast does internet have to be to be considered broadband? The Federal Communications Commission has upgraded its definition of minimum broadband speed to a download speed of 25 megabits per second and an upload speed of 3 megabits per second.

Those living in rural areas are much more likely to suffer from infrastructure deficiencies. Nearly 40% of rural America lacked the minimum broadband speed of 25/3 in 2018, compared to 4% of urban America, according to information provided by the American Farm Bureau Federation to the Rural Development Innovation Center in Washington. But there are barriers in urban areas as well, including affordability.

Those helping lead the charge – everyone from state officials to members of Congress to economic development directors and telecom CEOs – say expanding and improving broadband access across the state has become vital. The pandemic has accelerated that transformation.

“Connectivity today is as important as getting running water and electricity was when my parents were growing up,” says U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall, a Great Bend Republican who is seeking a seat in the U.S. Senate against Democrat Barbara Bollier. “It would have the same consequences on the quality of life and the economics of life. You’re not going to be able to run a modern farm or a modern business without connectivity.”

The pandemic did more than just show how important connectivity is, says Toland, the state’s commerce secretary.

“When you’re suddenly thrust into a situation where people are having to work remotely, and go to school remotely, and visit their medical provider remotely, you find out really quickly where those deficiencies are and how work and life can and can’t get done,” Toland says.

State officials are working to address some of those problems. As part of its response to the pandemic, Congress allocated $250 million to Kansas for coronavirus-related costs. The Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas task force, set up by Gov. Laura Kelly to oversee the disbursement of that money, identified connectivity as one of four priorities to be addressed with the aid.

The task force allocated $60 million for expanding connectivity around the state, including $10 million aimed specifically at= coverage for low-income residents. The highest priority will be given to projects that make telemedicine possible, allowing hospitals to interact with patients remotely and permitting specialists in urban areas to weigh in via teleconferencing.

But according to Adams, it’s been the struggle that many Kansans have faced during the coronavirus outbreak as they tried to help their children succeed at remote learning that vaulted broadband from something theoretical to something real.

State officials are looking to make quick work of the proposals they’re getting to make some immediate improvements in high-speed internet access. The Department of Commerce selected more than 60 broadband projects to be financed largely by the federal funding, along with more than 20 proposals to expand broadband access to low-income residents, Adams said. The dozens of broadband expansion projects selected include four by IdeaTek, a Buhler telecommunications company that will expand service in Meade County and the surrounding area as well as portions of Reno County and the Flint Hills. The four projects received more than $13 million, or nearly 28 percent of the federal funding allocated to Kansas.

All projects chosen will have to be completed by the end of the calendar year. 

That’s an awfully tight window, says Jill Kuehny, chief executive officer of KanOkla Networks, a telecommunications provider in Caldwell.

“We’ve scaled down our proposal to something we can get done” in that time frame, Kuehny said of the cooperative’s efforts to expand fiber to underserved sectors of their coverage area.

There’s a chance federal officials could extend the completion deadline for projects beyond the end of the year because of such things as a shortage of fiber availability, Adams says. It’s also possible Congress could make more money available.

“I’m going to make sure that we do projects that are immediate impact and long-term benefit,” Adams says. “We are also looking at scalability and robustness of service.”

The minimum broadband speed (a download speed of 25 megabits per second and an upload speed of 3 megabits per second) is considered the floor, not the ceiling, of the service that state officials want to see built. But telecom executives say such minimum speeds won’t be enough to handle even basic needs in just a few years.

Unlike the infrastructure projects, Adams says, the low-income component of the grant has no application deadline.

Cox Communications, which serves 92 communities across Kansas, is working with school districts to offer its Connect2Compete service to families that qualify for such assistance programs as free or reduced lunches, public affairs spokesperson Mandy Wilbert says. Families that sign up will get their first two months free, she said, and school districts plan to pay the ensuing $9.95 monthly fee using money from the federal CARES Act. Several school districts across the state have already signed up to provide that assistance,she says.

The Wichita School District, for example, has applied for money from the CARES Act. Otherwise, internet services for students will be paid out of the capital outlay section of the district’s budget.

During the pandemic, AT&T’s Giga said that his company has temporarily expanded the availability of its access program for low income residents to families with students participating in Head Start or the National School Lunch programs.

OPPORTUNITY BECKONS

While improving health care is the highest priority for this round of federal funding, officials say the economic benefits of strengthening the state’s broadband network are close behind. Businesses and industries who found overseas supply chains cut off by pandemic-related shutdowns are looking to bring operations back to the U.S., Toland says. For workers whose employers have shifted their employees to remote labor, COVID-19 is a reminder that people don’t necessarily need to live in the town where the job headquarters is.

“We are shouting from the rooftops about the opportunities that exist in Kansas from a quality of life perspective, from a business perspective,” Toland says. “Our geography provides us with a lot of advantages that have really been brought into stark relief because of COVID.”

Having a robust broadband network will be pivotal in attracting those businesses, Toland says, as well as those who want to have the opportunity to work remotely.

AVOIDING THE AX

But the push to expand broadband is coming at the same time that state officials also have to navigate a confounding budget situation. For instance, tax collections in May were down 20% compared with May 2019. But in June, tax receipts were down only about 5% from a year earlier.

By June of next year, the budget shortfall is predicted to reach $1.3 billion. So it’s possible that legislators in the 2021 session could agree that broadband expansion is necessary and still cut funding.

Politics will likely play a role in how much support for broadband expansion comes from the federal level too.

Because the areas in need of broadband expansion are more commonly rural and Republican, U.S. Rep. Ron Estes of Wichita says, “it does get caught up into politics at times.”

That can lead to expensive compromises and stalemates.

“It’s not a perfect world out there,” Estes says. “I do think there’s more and more visibility on the part of both Democrats as well as the Republicans that there’s need out there, and we need to keep pushing on that.”

THE OCTOBER AUCTION

The Federal Communications Commission will hold an auction on Oct. 29 in which internet service providers will bid on $20 billion in support over 10 years for the deployment of fixed broadband networks to millions of underserved homes and businesses across rural America. It’s a “reverse auction,” in that providers will bid lower and lower amounts at which they will be able to complete the required work. Rebel called it “a race to the bottom” because the winner will be whoever does the work the cheapest.

A similar auction was held in 2018, but critics say out-of-state providers too often won the bids and did nothing. That 2018 auction was a follow-up to a previous auction in which larger companies, such as AT&T and CenturyLink, bid on where to deploy download speeds of 10 megabits per second and upload speeds of 1 megabit per second. The second auction targeted areas declined by the larger providers. The net result, however, was households with such low capacity they couldn’t work from home during the pandemic. In response to those criticisms, the FCC has mandated that this time bidders must provide a minimum of download speeds at 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of 3 megabits per second. The auction also stipulates time frames within which the work must be done.

Rebel said the October auction will again likely result in systems that will be outdated almost from the moment they’re completed, simply because demand will only continue to increase.

The ideal solution, Kuehny says, would be to bury fiber lines to as many users as possible. Fiber provides much more bandwidth, is a direct line to the user and isn’t vulnerable to signal scattering over distance the way copper and wireless signals are. It’s also easy to scale up as demand for more bandwidth grows. But fiber is expensive, she says, costing an estimated $20,000 a mile to install.

Pioneer, for example, is spending $750,000 to deliver service to 32 customers. At current rates, Moyer told legislators at an August committee meeting, it will take 20 years to recoup that cost.

Broadband access around Kansas is a patchwork quilt of fiber, copper and wireless service.

Reviewing the FCC auction figures, Kuehny says, she already recognizes winning bidders aren’t likely to install much fiber in the areas they’ll upgrade unless they use other funds to help defray the cost. Underserved areas of Kansas will continue to wait and see how long it will be before improved access arrives in their homes.

To transform internet access in Kansas to a robust service that blankets the entire state will require a clear vision, a willingness by providers to solve existing problems and new issues that are bound to arise, an ongoing commitment of sufficient funding by the Legislature and an acknowledgment by all the stakeholders that broadband is an essential service.

Meanwhile off the beaten path in Sedgwick County, the Clarys have run out of patience.

“We’re looking to move into town,” Lauren Clary says, “and the internet is one of the reasons.”

 

A version of this article appears in the Fall 2020 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.

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