Kansas Announces New Ten-Year, $85-million Broadband Grant Program

The state of Kansas continues to build momentum with the announcement of a new, ten-year broadband grant program designed to drive network expansion in unserved and economically depressed areas. It will go towards connecting tens of thousands of residents in the state who currently have no or few options for Internet access, while bringing commercial development and connecting farms desperately in need. 

The Good

Currently, 3.5% of the state’s population, totaling almost 100,000 people, have no Internet access options at all. Students sent home at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic have struggled all summer and fall to get online to do coursework. Both urban and rural areas have continued to face significant challenges over the last decade, and the problem has only increased in recent months. It’s also an issue that has had ramifications for employers like Citizens State Bank in Cottonwood Falls, which has considered cutting local positions and shifting them to places with better Internet access options.

The new Broadband Acceleration Grant Program (BAGP) [pdf] offers lots of provisions for positive progress. It prioritizes low-income, economically distressed areas, as well as those without access to speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps (Megabits per second). This likely means much of the money will end up in the southeastern and southwestern parts of the state (see map). The grant also urges applicants to engage local stakeholders in their communities and build relationships with community anchor institutions, businesses, and nonprofits so as to maximize impact.

Each project is eligible for awards of up to $1 million for each project, requiring a 50% match, and helpfully, the program remains open not only to existing Internet Service Providers (ISPs) but counties, municipalities, nonprofits, and cooperatives. This is a welcome approach, and one contrasted with states like Ohio, which established a broadband grant program excluding municipal networks. It also allows prospective applicants to move beyond incomplete and flawed FCC Form 477 data and demonstrate a lack of service in other ways, including surveys of residents and businesses (among other options). This will allow for a wider range of eligible areas.

The Office of Broadband Development will be helping prospective applicants by hosting a webinar on December 9th at 10:30am CST to provide additional information and answer questions. See the full application schedule in the grant announcement here [pdf].

The Bad

Unfortuantely, at only $85 million over ten years, the grant won’t solve the connectivity program for all 100,000 Kansans without Internet access, or even a majority. It will disburse $5 million each year for the first three years and $10 million annually for the next 7 years. There’s no indication of why the timeline has been set like this, and what they hope to accomplish by doing so. We’ve reached out to the Kansas Department of Commerce, which administers the program, and will update this story if they respond.

Unfortunately for prospective applicants, the Intent to Apply deadline is also soon — December 11 — with full applications due by January 7 of 2021. Those communities just getting started will be hard-pressed to get their ducks in a row quickly enough to apply.

Finally, the program guidelines set too-low a standard for speed at 25/3 Mbps. Even outside of the context of the ongoing pandemic, it’s not enough today.

The Middling

Like many grant programs, the BAGP focuses primarily on last-mile connections, which tends to funnel money to places where middle-mile infrastructure already exists and often misses the importance of necessary backhaul, continuing in many instances to leave behind places that don’t already have infrastructure. In this case, however, the BAGP allows money to go to projects that include middle-mile builds necessary to hook up homes, businesses, and farms.

Areas that have benefitted from the recently announced Define Connectivity Emergency Response Grants (CERG) program as well as USDA ReConnect winners are ineligible for BAGP funds, which, while par for the course, means that the grants will not do much to increase competition even while bringing greater connectivity to the state. In May, the USDA announced a nearly $38 million grant/loan award to Totah Communications to expand its Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network in northern Oklahoma and southern Kansas, which will benefit residents of Montgomery and Chautauqua counties. 

The grant sets a project completion deadline of February 28, 2022 — an aggressive timeline which will bring welcome connectivity to winning areas but strongly favors existing providers and applicants that can demonstrate a track record of success. For cities, counties, or local Internet Service Providers (ISPs) just getting started, it may be too tall an order to match.

Building on Recent Work

The announcement of the initiative follows up on recent moves. In 2019 the state released a new map of unserved areas with the help of Connect Nation and the Information Network of Kansas, using data from Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and manually verifying it with engineers on the ground. It shows the poor speeds and lack of connectivity with which many in the state struggle (see map, left). Those areas in light yellow and light green have access to maximum speeds of 10/1 Mbps and 25/3 Mbps, respectively, and show just how many Kansans are stuck on networks of the past. Other states, like Georgia, have made similar moves after years of struggling with inaccurate and incomplete FCC data.

Earlier this fall, the state established an Office Of Broadband Development and created two other broadband-related pots of money. An executive order by Governor Laura Kelly created the Kansas Office of Broadband Development, followed shortly thereafter by the announcement of the CARES-funded Define Connectivity Emergency Response Grant (CERG) and the state-funded Broadband Partnership Adoption Grant (BPAG). Collectively, these two programs not only resulted in more than $49 million in grants to 67 projects around the state that will connect 77,000 households, 6,000 businesses and 636 anchor institutions, but earmarked millions to help low-income Kansans pay for new and existing connections.

Among winners of the CERG grants include four electric cooperatives and community networks expanding wireless and fiber access in towns like Eureka, Severy, and Piedmont, as well as in the counties of Republic, Cloud, Mitchell, Jewell, Sumner, Cowley, Wabaunsee, Finney, and Jefferson. CERG grantees also includes health clinic networks and the city of Chanute, which is in the early stages of building a municipally owned Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network. Small providers like these have continued their commitment to connecting Kansans who have been left behind by large, out-of-state ISPs

The reality, they say, is that those publicly traded providers have turned those profits into dividends and healthier bottom lines that please shareholders and Wall Street. While that’s understandable from a business perspective . . . it leaves some rural sectors with poor service.

Applicants for the BAGP have until December 11th to file a notice of Intent to Apply, with full applications due by January 7, 2021.

Header image from Wikimedia Commons by Guywets, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0.

Maps from Kansas Broadband Map Project.