TOPEKA — Critically needed broadband will soon be available to more than a dozen Kansas communities after the first-round recipients of a state grant program were announced Thursday.
The Broadband Acceleration Grant Program, created in fall 2020, aims to increase broadband access across the state through a 10-year, $85 million investment. The program is operated through the office of broadband development in conjunction with the Kansas Department of Transportation’s Eisenhower Legacy transportation program.
The initial round provided $5 million in total grant awards to 14 projects in 18 communities; each recipient company matched the state grant it received.
“It’s our job to give the innovators and entrepreneurs of our state, in each and every Kansas community, what they need, and what they need is a chance,” said Kansas Lt. Gov. David Toland. “They need a chance to be able to compete in this interconnected economy, a chance to innovate and a chance to win, and what the lack of broadband infrastructure does is it makes it hard to give them that chance.”
COVID-19 has magnified issues with internet access to health and education services, Toland said. The grant program is aimed at addressing those problems.
Examples of recipients include EpicTouch Communications, which is putting nearly $1.2 million toward the Liberal community in southwest Kansas, and SC Telecom, which is investing $1.6 million in Pratt, 79 miles west of Wichita.
Other communities set to receive broadband access improvements include Norwich, Hesston, Fredonia, Frankfort and Barber.
“We know broadband connectivity can close the equity gap between communities, bridge the urban and rural divide, improve access to health care through telehealth services, allow kids to access virtual school and ensures that businesses can compete and thrive in an increasingly digital-focused economy,” said Gov. Laura Kelly.
Ron Wilson is the director of the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development at Kansas State University and owner of Lazy T Ranch in Zeandale, one of the communities set to receive investment via WTC Communications. When he and his wife moved to the family ranch 15 years ago, they realized that internet providers had almost ignored the area, though it was less than five miles from Manhattan.
Wilson and his wife both work from home, which has proven problematic with dropped calls and endless delays to their work. Grants like these can help mend a critical shortfall in his community, he said.
“From a rural development perspective, from a business development perspective, from a precision agriculture perspective, from a health perspective, or from an education perspective, this type of investment supporting private sector investment is exactly what we need,” Wilson said.
Stanley Adams, director of the office of broadband development, noted that efforts in the first round and subsequent phases will focus on communities dispersed across the state.