Kansas share of federal broadband cash in jeopardy because of ‘grossly inadequate’ map

By: - December 14, 2022 10:18 am
Kimberlyn Jones and Brandon Hutton appear at a lectern

Kimberlyn Jones and Brandon Hutton, from the state broadband office, deliver a presentation on broadband access during a forum Monday at the Kansas Health Institute. They said hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grant money is at stake because of a flawed map that shows all of Kansas has access to broadband internet. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Kansas officials worry the state will lose part of its share of a $42.5 billion federal investment in broadband expansion because the Federal Communications Commission commissioned a “grossly inadequate” map of existing services.

The map, released in late November, shows broadband is available everywhere in Kansas. The state faces a Jan. 13 deadline to challenge the map by encouraging residents to self-report discrepancies with it.

The federal broadband investment is part of the massive infrastructure package Congress passed last year. Grant money will be allocated to states based on the need for broadband services.

Staff members from the state broadband office explained the challenge during a forum Monday at the Kansas Health Institute about broadband access and telehealth.

Kimberlyn Jones, digital equity program manager for the state, said the FCC map is “somewhat grossly inadequate, and based on the information on that mapping, that determines how much the state can get.”

Brandon Hutton, the state’s broadband program manager, said hundreds of millions of dollars could be at stake.

Hutton said the FCC map was based on information reported by internet service providers who “weren’t completely truthful in that, because they wanted to stake out their territory.”

Kimberlyn Jones points to a presentation slide
Kimberlyn Jones, digital equity program manager for the state broadband office, points to an image from the FCC map that shows a rural Kansas barn has access to broadband internet. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Jones and Hutton presented an example from the FCC map that showed broadband service was available at a rural barn behind a house. They were certain the barn didn’t have internet service because it is owned by an employee at the Kansas Department of Commerce.

Speaking to a room full of health care professionals, they emphasized the need for residents to compare their actual service speed and provider options against the data presented at broadbandmap.fcc.gov.

“If you have a rural home and you know that you’re not getting internet out there, and you check the map and it says you’re receiving Cox Communications, and you know that that’s wrong, you need to challenge that,” Hutton said. “That is an example of what an ISP does to stake their territory. The more territory they have, the less grant money for another competitor to come in.”

After Kansas Reflector asked the governor’s office and Cox for comment, Hutton sent an email asking to retract his comments about Cox.

Mandy Wilbert, a spokeswoman for Cox, said the company provided accurate information to the FCC.

“Ensuring that all Kansans have access to services is important to us and all providers, and these maps are key in making sure that happens,” Wilbert said.

Jade Piros de Carvalho, the state’s broadband director, said Hutton was mistaken about ISPs reporting inaccurate information. Jones and Hutton delivered the presentation in her place because she was sick.

She blamed the federal vendor, CostQuest, for producing the inaccurate maps. The FCC paid the company $50 million, de Carvalho said, but the mapping data wasn’t open sourced. As a result, she said, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which administers the grants, had to pay an additional $40 million to access the data.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, whose office didn’t respond to inquiries for this story, signed a letter with 14 other governors to ask for a 60-day extension to challenge the map. However, several other governors who signed the letter decided to back out, and the letter was never sent, de Carvalho said.

Federal authorities don’t want to hold up the launch of projects that would expand broadband access, de Carvalho said.

“There are competing priorities,” de Carvalho said. “We want to get this money out the door as quickly as possible and put it to work for people who do not have broadband.”

In November, Republican U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall encouraged Kansans to challenge the location-specific information in the map and provide corrections.

“Unfortunately, we still have too many Kansans without adequate broadband access,” Marshall said. “Much of that can be attributed to the outdated and inaccurate broadband maps, which prevent our broadband providers from receiving funding for homes and businesses they know are not being sufficiently served. I encourage Kansans in all corners of the state to check the map and follow the steps to provide updated information so that we can continue to close the digital divide.”

Residents can submit a challenge through the FCC website.

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the 2021 and 2022 Kansas Press Association’s journalist of the year. He has written award-winning news stories about the instability of the Kansas foster care system, misconduct by government officials, sexual abuse, technology, education, and the Legislature. He previously spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He is a lifelong Kansan.