At a time when civic problems often seem intractable, Kansas is actually making progress on increasing access to quality broadband, a deficiency exposed all too clearly by the pandemic. With the help of state and federal investments, spurred by the pandemic, and private companies taking leaps of their own, some Kansans are noticing the difference in internet speeds. But it’s a push that hasn’t been without hiccups and is far from complete.
After hearing rumors that better broadband would finally be coming to historic Cottonwood Falls in the scenic Flint Hills, Sandy Carlson was skeptical.
Similar promises and whispers had circulated for ages, she says, but nothing ever came of them. Internet service was spotty and feeble at best in the Chase County hamlet, known best for a French Renaissance style courthouse that dates back to 1873 and its proximity to the nearby Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.
Carlson’s husband endured “a big culture shock” after they had married more than three years ago and he moved to Cottonwood Falls from Colorado.
“He never gave good internet service a second thought,” Carlson says. “He just thought everybody always had it. It was so spotty here with AT&T. And the service wasn’t good. If something was wrong, it was always a couple of hours on the phone with AT&T.”
But then equipment from IdeaTek, an internet service provider based in Buhler, started showing up in town late in 2020. Residents were told high-speed broadband service would be available in January.
“My husband and I were both like, ‘Yeah, whatever. They can’t do it that fast,’” Carlson says.
Lo and behold, not long after the dawn of 2021, IdeaTek technicians arrived to say they were ready to hook up the Carlsons’ house.
“It’s huge – and we love it!” Carlson says. “We don’t have issues any longer.”
Gone are the days of the screen-freezing “spiral of death.” Gone are the days when the Carlsons and her daughter would have to take turns being online because they couldn’t all be on at the same time.
“We can all do our work,” Carlson says. “My daughter can do her homework, her Zoom calls, whatever. … It’s been really positive and … it happened. It actually happened!”
A Fiber Spree Unfolds
At a time when civic problems often seem intractable, a lack of access to quality broadband is proving to be a problem that Kansas is finding solutions for as promised. Not comprehensively yet, of course. After all, the situation was challenging to begin with.
The Statewide Broadband Expansion Planning Task Force, a legislative body established in 2018, reported three years ago that about 95,000 Kansas households had no access to the internet or lacked what has been defined as the bare minimum of internet access.
But community by community, projects around the state are reducing this aspect of the digital divide. The reason? There was money to spend and plans that paired government funding with the private sector.
Recommendations by the broadband task force to the Legislature only got as far as the committee level before being shelved by the pandemic, but the 2020 session did manage to 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. The state selected 14 broadband projects to receive the first year of funding. Then came another cascade of money.
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 Democratic 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 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.
Naturally, there have been some hiccups.
The projects were supposed to be completed by the end of 2020, but fiber shortages and COVID outbreaks among the workers slowed some of the projects, says Stanley Adams, the state’s broadband director.
“Everybody was looking for fiber all over the country,” Adams says.
Contractors were given an extension to the end of January 2021 to complete the infrastructure work, followed by hookups to individual properties. Those connections were slowed too, Adams says, because residents often were not willing to let crews into their homes for fear of contracting COVID.
“It’s obviously been a challenge to execute the program in a compressed time frame,” Adams says. “But I think, all in all, we were really successful.”
IdeaTek landed four expansion projects worth more than $13 million, about a quarter of the federal funding allocated to Kansas. The projects covered 19 towns and surrounding rural areas in 17 counties. One of the projects expanded service in and around Meade County, which studies had shown was the most underserved county in the state.
“It’s a total flip-flop” from where it was, says state Rep. Boyd Orr, a Fowler Republican who represents the 115th District. “I don’t know of anyone that’s not satisfied right now. We went from basically nothing to just an incredible amount of capacity.
“No one even understood what they were missing,” he says.
It gives Orr the sense that Meade County is catching up to the rest of the world and will aid efforts to stem the tide of outmigration. The county lost 520 residents between the 2010 and 2020 census, or about 11% of its population. The benefits of faster internet could include being able to attract a major company that will use a manure digester to make natural gas.
“They would like to build an amazing complex that is solely based upon the internet, and we’re going to do our best to get them located either in Meade or Fowler,” Orr says.
But progress brought added pressures as well as opportunities.
IdeaTek had to expand rapidly to fulfill the contracts, says Jade Piros de Carvalho, director of industry and community relations for the company. “We had about three months to deploy about 350 miles of fiber.”
In addition, IdeaTek installed fixed wireless service in several towns. The company added dozens of employees and worked with numerous subcontractors around the state.
“We decided to go big during the application process,” Piros de Carvalho says. “We’ve been trying to build a business plan for a while, especially in the Meade and Plains area. We were investing there but struggling to make it work on a broader scale. When the opportunity came up, we thought we’d go for it.”
More Pieces of the Puzzle
The Connectivity Emergency Response Grant projects represent just a portion of the broadband expansion efforts underway in Kansas. The Federal Communications Commission has held two auctions – in 2018 and again in 2021 – to entice service providers to bring broadband to underserved areas of the nation. Seven bidders received $46 million in contracts to provide broadband access, phased in over 10 years, to nearly 14,000 locations in Kansas as part of the 2018 auction.
The auctions were part of a program designed to subsidize broadband upgrades in rural areas, but they came under fire for being rushed, being based on inaccurate maps and selecting bidders without sufficient vetting, the Axios news website reported. The more recent FCC auction awarded $9.23 billion in contracts spanning 10 years to 181 bidders across the country. One of the biggest winners was Nextlink Internet, a Texas-based company that received $429 million in contracts in 12 states, including Kansas.
Nextlink has more than $25 million in Kansas contracts from the most recent auction, to go with $37 million in contracts from the 2018 auction. Nextlink was the subject of criticism for its slow rollout of service after winning the earlier contracts, but CEO Bill Baker defends the company’s approach.
“A lot of it was standing up field operations, hiring folks, getting them trained, getting our initial tower setup, getting our initial fiber, just sort of initiating all those operations,” Baker says. “And now that we’ve got those in place, we are moving briskly.”
Nextlink has opened 23 new field offices across the central U.S. since mid-2019, including four in Kansas. Each office is staffed with 15 to 20 technicians who live in the area, build and maintain the local network, and do installations.
Nextlink is negotiating with various electric cooperatives to form partnerships to roll out fiber quicker, Baker says. In exchange for being able to use the cooperatives’ towers, he says Nextlink will help the local companies manage their substations and network needs.
“We will ultimately have a service area that is going to substantially cover rural Kansas,” Baker says.
For its Connect America Fund projects, Baker says, Nextlink must provide a minimum speed of 100 megabits per second download and 20 Mbps upload. Some census blocks in the most recent auction must be provided with a minimum of 1,000 Mbps for downloads.
Another benefit of the expansion is the ability to connect objects that transfer data without any human intervention, called the Internet of Things or IoT. As an example, sensors placed on towers can communicate with agricultural soil monitors that measure moisture content, mineral levels and other data, and transmit that information through sensors on the towers to cloud storage that farmers can tap into to monitor their cropland. Sensors can also be used to track livestock.
“We already have a presence in terms of antennas and coverage on probably over 100 towers in central Kansas,” Baker says. “And I would say we probably are installing a new tower right now in Kansas, probably every other day.”
Mercury Broadband, which landed more than a dozen projects in northeast Kansas worth more than $1.5 million in the 2018 FCC auction, is ahead of schedule with its installation work, says Matthew Sams, chief of staff for the company, which is based in Kansas City, Missouri.
“There are some carriers that are not meeting those milestones … so it’s kind of a question of, ‘Are we being good stewards of taxpayer dollars and really getting the services to where they need to be?’” Sams says. “I’m feeling pretty good about what we’re deploying and where it’s going.”
In total, Mercury will be making broadband available to nearly 3,800 locations in northeast Kansas via state grants or FCC auctions.
Will Politics Complicate the Future?
All of these projects, though, are just the tip of the iceberg, Piros de Carvalho says.
Tens of thousands of Kansans still don’t have access to high-speed broadband, officials say. But the stage is set for progress to continue.
A number of opportunities are opening up on the federal level that could further boost broadband expansion, Adams says. In addition to existing federal programs that could be tapped, the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill signed by President Joe Biden in November includes $65 billion to increase broadband access.
In addition to increasing connectivity, the legislation includes subsidies for low-income users, although they’re not as generous as subsidies that were provided in bills passed early in the pandemic.
The connectivity portion of the broadband section of the legislation sets aside $42 billion to be made available as grants to the states. Each state is to receive at least $100 million and distribute that money in the form of subgrants. The remainder of the $42 billion will go to states with a large number of high cost and unserved locations.
The infrastructure law will make a big difference for Kansas, Adams says. “Part of the allocation formulation accounts for a state’s degree of rurality. Details are still being worked out, but we are certainly watching them develop.”
Adams calls legislation coming from Washington “phenomenally forward-looking.”
Broadband expansion has strong bipartisan support, Adams says.
Perhaps just as important for stakeholders like Piros de Carvalho, the federal government is giving the work of disbursing funding back to states. According to the National League of Cities, the legislation will provide grants to state governments to award subgrants for broadband planning, mapping, deployment and adoption programs, prioritizing unserved areas, underserved areas and anchor institutions.
States are required to coordinate with local governments when drafting plans for approval by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration prior to receiving funds. Piros de Carvalho hopes that fiber will be the focus of the effort rather than “yesterday’s technology” which would give remote areas merely the bare minimum.
“The pandemic, it’s blown everything up. You have an opportunity to do things differently. I would say we have a mandate to do things differently.”
That would include focusing on public-private partnerships that could help residents on low and fixed incomes receive affordable broadband service, and asking service providers to do more. For instance, Piros de Carvalho says, IdeaTek made the decision to provide 100 Mbps fiber to customers with low incomes or receiving government assistance.
“If you’re on a low-income program, you don’t get the lowest-class service. We give you the highest-class service we have available in that area,” she says. “That’s the only way we’re going to reach true broadband equity. I think more providers need to step up and do that, especially if they’re receiving subsidies for that low-income program from public dollars.”
The landscape for broadband continues to evolve.
Entrepreneur Elon Musk’s satellite broadband service, Starlink, is an example of that. Starlink already has launched more than 1,800 low-orbit satellites and plans to have hundreds of thousands of users worldwide by the middle of 2022, the billionaire entrepreneur announced at the virtual Mobile World Congress last year.
Starlink is targeting areas that don’t have internet service, Musk has said, so it’s unclear how much overlap there will be with areas that might also be considering broadband expansion.
In any event, the coming months are shaping up to be pivotal in the history of internet infrastructure in Kansas, potentially one of the most significant investments in public works since the rural electrification push of the 1930s and ‘40s.
“Kansas is in the bottom quarter of states in connectivity,” Piros de Carvalho says, “and if we have any hopes to be competitive and to move into the top tier of coverage for broadband, then we need to think more boldly.”
To get the most out of the moment, residents should stress to their elected officials how important high-speed broadband is to their everyday lives, she says.
“Broadband impacts our ability to work, entertain, educate and doctor at home,” Piros de Carvalho says. “Only by directly advocating for their needs can voters ensure that funds are allocated to address the critical need for broadband infrastructure in their communities.”
If millions or even billions of dollars end up being dedicated to broadband infrastructure, she says, “this is a historic, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get it right. This country is behind the times when it comes to fiber connectivity. We will not get another opportunity like this.”
- How would you assess the amount of progress Kansas has made in increasing access to quality broadband?
- What interpretations do you have about why this progress has been made?
- What might keep additional progress from being made on this issue?
A version of this article appears in the Winter 2022 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.
Sign up for email updates about The Journal’s content.