Kansas has a chance to close the digital divide — but only if we invest wisely

Kansas currently ranks 28th in the county for broadband connectivity, a marked improvement from four years ago when it ranked 40th. (Leonardo Fernandez Viloria/Getty Images)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Jade Piros de Carvalho is director of industry and community relations at Ideatek, a telecommunications company based in south central Kansas that focuses on bringing fast broadband to underserved Kansans.

Most of us have experienced the frustration of internet buffering while streaming our favorite Netflix shows. For years, policymakers have tried to fill in the gap for people who don’t have access to broadband by telling them this level of service would be enough. Those who chose to live rural were told that they simply needed to live without certain amenities, like fast internet service, that their urban counterparts enjoyed.

The pandemic changed all that and taught everyone what rural Kansans have long known. Broadband is no longer a luxury, but an essential part of everyday life.

Kansas currently ranks 28th in the county for broadband connectivity, a marked improvement from four years ago when it ranked 40th. The Kansas Legislature signaled its willingness to address broadband disparities in 2018 with the establishment of a state broadband expansion planning task force. Last year’s IKE transportation plan included $85 million in funding for broadband infrastructure construction grants. Then, with the availability of federal CARES Act funding in response to the pandemic, Gov. Laura Kelly made the bold move to invest $60 million toward broadband grants for both infrastructure and low income subsidies. Kansas Department of Commerce hustled to administer the funding in an effort that connected thousands of Kansans in the final quarter of 2020. Kelly also established the Office of Broadband Development to focus solely on universal broadband coverage in Kansas.

We have come so far, so fast. Kansas is poised to build on that momentum with broadband funding coming our way from the CRRSA Act passed last December, the American Rescue Plan Act passed in March and the upcoming infrastructure plan being debated now in Congress. We are embarking on a historic level of support for solving the broadband digital divide.

We cannot waste the opportunity. We must make sure that the investments we make with these funds will truly eliminate our broadband access and adoption problems. Here are a few ways that lawmakers and industry leaders can ensure that happens.

1. Dispense with the talk of minimally acceptable speeds.

The Federal Communications Commission defines broadband as a minimum speed of 25 megabits per second for downloads and 3 megabits per second for uploads. We need to stop pretending this is adequate for today’s needs, let alone tomorrow’s. Doing so allows providers to game the subsidy system by eking out a few more years from their obsolete infrastructure instead of investing in long-term solutions. If we are going to invest at a level we’ve never done before, we shouldn’t waste money on “acceptable” speeds. Kansas needs world-class broadband. We should insist on speeds of at least 100 megabits per second.

2. Focus our dollars on fiber infrastructure.

The FCC recently allocated $20 billion to close the digital divide, but awarded most of the funds to wireless providers who offer slow service, putting us in a position to give handouts to big internet service providers every few years. Limiting subsidies to fiber will be hugely unpopular with providers that enjoy large profits by serving up yesterday’s technology to rural Kansas. These companies operate with virtually no competition in rural areas, leading to obscene prices for second-class service. If we invest in the actual infrastructure that is future proof, we could avoid giving these handouts to private business.

3. Offer best-in-class product to low income users.

Several broadband companies offer plans for users who would not otherwise adopt their product due to cost constraints. These plans typically offer a lower speed internet product for a small price each month to those on government assistance programs. What’s the point of offering low-tier service to these subscribers? The cost after initial installation to provide the fastest versus the slowest speed is negligible. The right thing to do — especially for companies that receive government subsidies — is to give low income users the best possible service available.

I work for Ideatek, a broadband provider in Buhler, Kansas. We offer wireless service in the most remote areas and will benefit from subsidies regardless of what lawmakers determine is acceptable infrastructure. But we envision a future where every rural community has the wired connectivity that allows it to thrive. Fiber is the fastest, most reliable, scalable solution for our modern agriculture, telehealth, remote work and virtual learning needs. Fiber has large up-front costs, but will last for decades with low maintenance costs.

We won’t see this level of investment toward broadband again in our lifetime. Let’s do the right thing for Kansas. We need to act boldly and invest wisely on broadband infrastructure that will support the needs of our state for years to come.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.