State and federal funds initiated in 2020 are funding nearly 100 projects across the state, said Stanley Adams, who leads the broadband development office at the Kansas Department of Commerce. He expressed optimism with how these programs were addressing the digital divide in Kansas. (Oct. 8, 2020, photo by Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Kansas state broadband leaders say federal and state funding established last year to improve connectivity across the state helped support nearly 100 projects, and they are optimistic additional funds are on the way.
During the pandemic, the SPARK task force earmarked $60 million in CARES Act funding for two broadband grant programs related to the pandemic response. Connectivity Emergency Response Grants totaling $50 million are funding a total of 65 projects across the state and 25 Broadband Partnership Adoption Grants totaling $10 million helped facilitate internet access for low-income households, defraying internet subscription costs, funded hot spots, and provided devices to eligible households.
Stanley Adams, who leads the broadband development office at the Kansas Department of Commerce, said the programs are having a positive impact on communities.
“I am optimistic that this will represent a significant opportunity to help Kansas close the digital divide so all Kansans can have robust broadband and are able to fully participate in our ever-growing digital economy,” Adams told legislators on the House Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications Committee on Thursday.
The nonprofit Kansas Appleseed reported 165,000 Kansans did not have wired high-speed internet service available at their home. In addition, about 300,000 Kansans were plagued by slow internet speeds.
About that same number had only one service provider in their area.
In April 2020, the Legislature and Gov. Laura Kelly approved a measure dedicating an additional $85 million to broadband infrastructure through 2030 to aid in addressing this digital divide. The funding through the Kansas Department of Transportation’s Eisenhower Legacy Transportation Program offers grants totaling $5 million per year for the first three years followed by a $10 million per year for the next seven years.
The maximum amount for a single grant is $1 million, and there is a 50% matching contribution component meaning the initiative can support projects costing up to $2 million in total to improve connectivity. This is the first state-funded broadband infrastructure grant program.
In the first year, 14 awardees have nearly completed all projects. The deadline for applications for the second year of the program was Friday.
While these programs continue to address the broadband dilemma, some legislators on the House panel had an eye to the future.
“At some point SPARK funding will be exhausted and doled out,” said. Rep. Mark Schreiber, an Emporia Republican. “Are there thoughts from your department as to what happens after that? Once that initial glut of funding expires, what is next?”
Adams said the SPARK committee is already planning for additional federal funding expected down the road. In addition, the state broadband office applied for $13.4 million to fund 10 more projects from the National Information and Telecommunications Administration’s Broadband Infrastructure Program.
“The formulation for that and the details for how it will flow to our state or to all states is still being worked out,” Adams said.
Cort Buffington, executive director of KanREN, or Kansas Research and Education Network — an organization serving the unique connectivity needs of education and research — urged legislators to consider the needs of anchor institutions like universities, hospitals and other organizations that play a vital role in their local communities when distributing future funds.
While residential broadband remains of paramount importance, he said the institutional digital divide remains unaddressed. Buffington also urged legislators to consider ensuring the state’s fiber infrastructure is publicly funded and publicly owned.
“It’s not KU’s fiber. It’s not KDOTs fiber,” Buffington said. “It’s fiber that belongs to the taxpayers of Kansas, and that should all be inventoried and made available in a way that’s going to do the most for us.”
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