Kansas broadband efforts receive $85 million boost to bridge digital divide

Gov. Laura Kelly said she had hired Stanley Adams to lead the new office of broadband development in the Kansas Department of Commerce. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Stanley Adams, director of the office of broadband development at the Department of Commerce, said the pandemic made exceedingly clear the need for significant federal funding toward bridging the technological divide. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Kansas’ broadband czar says a new grant initiative will infuse tens of millions of dollars over the next decade into projects working to close the digital divide in underserved areas across Kansas.

 

Stanley Adams, director of the office of broadband development at the Kansas Department of Commerce, said the Broadband Acceleration Grant Program will provide $85 million over the next decade to qualifying areas with low connectivity.

 

Presenting Tuesday to the Special Committee on Economic Recovery, Adams told legislators the initiative is a major step toward adequate broadband services across Kansas.

 

“What we know for sure is increasingly, not decreasingly, we all need to have access to these services,” Adams said. “We knew that before the pandemic. Now, a lot more people know, and there is a glaring bright light on it, so it’s an opportunity for us to seize.”

 

Amid a crisis that exposed technology gaps in education, health and business, the grant program will address broadband priorities for underserved or economically distressed areas impacted most. Applications for the first round of these funds are now open to the public.

 

The idea for the grant initiative originated from a 2019 task force before passing through the 2021 Legislature as part of the Eisenhower Legacy Transportation Program. Gov. Laura Kelly signed the plan into law in March before the legislative session was suspended.

 

Total funding from the program will last 10 years, beginning in 2021. There will be $5 million available annually over the next three years, with $10 million available annually the following seven.

 

Rep. Jim Gartner, a Topeka Democrat, expressed excitement that the program was a product of a legislative task force. He also pinpointed one reason federal funds were key to addressing digital inequalities.

 

“Companies go out and try to make business cases, and they need X penetration rate, and they cannot get people for whatever reason — either cost or a lot of those folks feel like they’ll never utilize it,” Gartner said. “So it’s really, really been a struggle, and that’s where government money really needs to subsidize to make this happen.”

Rep. Jim Gartner (D-Topeka) said federal funding was necessary to subsidize providers struggling to get enough people to sign up for services. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

 

In addition to addressing underserved areas, the grants will be awarded to projects that work with community stakeholders and share information transparently. 

 

Applications for the grants will remain open through the office of broadband development until Jan.7. Staff then will review the applications and facilitate public comment to allow providers to address any challenges or issues before the department announces recipients Feb. 25.

 

Projects chosen for the initial round of grant funding should reach completion on or before Feb. 28, 2022.

 

“It is an aggressive timetable, but I think that this year highlights the need for us to be able to get those grants out the door,” said David Soffer, the legislative and policy director for the commerce department.

 

In a release announcing the launch of the program last month, the governor said this marked the first time in Kansas history there has been a statewide, bipartisan effort to fund increased broadband access.

 

“These grants are a critical part of my administration’s work to provide underserved Kansans with the high-speed internet they need to compete economically and to improve access to health, education and commercial tools,” Kelly said. “We are working quickly to ensure our communities, no matter their ZIP code, are adequately equipped for prosperity and growth, as Kansas continues to rebuild its foundation.”