Imagine how all of Kansas could get broadband sooner rather than later

Workers from the Rural Electrification Administration are installing lines and poles in Brown County, Kansas. This was the first rural electrical line in Kansas. (kansasmemory.org, Kansas State Historical Society)

Along with the misery and death COVID-19 has visited upon Kansas, there’s one enormous silver lining: a windfall in federal relief cash to throw at one of the state’s biggest problems.

A $60 million broadband gold rush starts at noon Wednesday, when the state begins accepting applications for projects to hook up places that still don’t have decent internet. One condition for whoever wants the money is they’ll have to get places wired by Dec. 31.

Crappy or non-existent internet in parts of Kansas has been a problem for decades, but the pandemic reinforced how desperately families need it for online school and rural residents need it for telemedicine, not to mention just staying connected to loved ones by arguing about politics on Facebook.

Getting the whole state wired is a massive project, one that everyone’s comparing to the rural electrification effort of the 1930s and ‘40s.

The problem back then sounds familiar today: An “electrical divide fueled the difference in standards of living between city and farm, hampering rural Americans’ ability to participate in the life of their modernizing country,” according to a nice summary by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, whose write-up evokes sepia-toned nostalgia for American cooperation:

These days, one Kansas faction will howl that FDR was a socialist even if he helped bring electricity to their grandparents’ farms. (Yes, people called FDR a socialist back then, too.)

Still, it’s tempting to fantasize about all of Kansas rising to meet the moment.

No one can say exactly how much it would cost or how long it would take to get the whole state wired, though everyone agrees $60 million isn’t nearly enough. But that cash is coming on top of $85 million in grants for broadband infrastructure, spread out over 10 years, that the Legislature approved earlier this year.

What if, in a new feat of unity, innovation and grit, Kansas somehow found the rest of the money to just get the whole state connected in these next few months? Sent folks who’ve lost their jobs out to help string wires to the end of every dirt road in all 105 counties? Aimed for the stars through difficulty?

I floated this idea to Gov. Laura Kelly, who replied as the realist she is.

“The only way we’re going to get this done, and maybe not at the scale you’re thinking of, is through public-private partnerships,” Kelly said. “We have got to work with our telecommunication industry closely. They have the technology information and expertise, not to mention the customer connection. They can’t afford to do it alone, and neither can we.”

That means placing a lot of hope in Cox Communications, despite some folks’ reservations about its monopolistic tendencies.

Earlier this month, Cox’s lobbyist, Megan Bottenberg, told members of the Joint Legislative Budget committee that Cox has identified six locations it could build to in the next five months, which would provide broadband to more than 1,700 new families, for $2.4 million.

“While these communities have been on our list of possible expansion for some time,” Bottenberg said, “it didn’t make economic sense for Cox to build to them without a public-private partnership or a grant-assistance program.”

(Estimates of the privately held, Atlanta-based company’s revenues range from its self-reported $12 billion to the $21 billion reported by Forbes. Bloomberg lists the Cox family as the 18th richest in the world.)

But Cox isn’t the only player. Service providers like the Cunningham Telephone Co. in Glen Elder, the Gorham Telephone Company in Gorham and Home Telephone Company Inc. in Galva are crucial to the effort.

“Never have so many people needed this service as much as now,” said Catherine Moyer, of Pioneer Communications in Ulysses, testifying on behalf of the Communications Coalition of Kansas, whose members provide service in “more than 50% of geographic area of Kansas and less than 10% of the population.”

Also standing by is the ever-ready, all powerful Kansas Farm Bureau, which has outlined “a bold request for $161.8 million” to deliver telemedicine to more Kansas communities.

“In this unusual, unsettled and difficult time,” the Farm Bureau’s lobbyist, Allie Devine, told members of the budget committee, her organization “views the use of these funds for telemedicine and broadband expansion as a golden opportunity to respond with strength, courage and the foresight to build something positive and lasting to help Kansans deal with this and future pandemics or disasters.”

That’s some ad astra aspiration, folks. Who in the private sector is ready to help Kansas finish the broadband job before the end of the pandemic? History will remember you.