Kansas Sees Boost with Establishment of Broadband Office and Tens of Millions in Grants

Tens of thousands of homes, businesses, farms, schools, and community anchor institutions in the Sunflower State will see better connectivity options over the next few years. A recent executive order [pdf] establishing a Kansas Office of Broadband Development followed by the announcement of more than $49 million in grants to 67 projects around the state means a host of Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH), fixed wireless, and institutional networks will break ground in the near future. The measure comes in response to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

A Broadband Office and Grant Program

The new Office of Broadband Development has been placed in the state’s Department of Commerce, and given the task of promoting networks of all kinds — municipal, cooperative, private, and nonprofit — as well as supporting regional initiatives, developing a better broadband map, and removing policy barriers to fast deployment. 

The state actually has two grant programs ongoing at the moment as part of the connectivity program approved the state’s Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas (SPARK) Taskforce and the State Finance Council. The Broadband Partnership Adoption Grants (BPAG) are designed to help low-income Kansans pay for service with existing plans. The large pot of grant money just announced, on the other hand, is part of the Define Connectivity Emergency Response Grant (CERG), which will use CARES funding to facilitate new builds between now and the end of the year.

It is heartening to see that there were no restrictions placed on application eligibility for CERG, and that municipal, cooperative, and other community-owned networks could apply for support. In places like Ohio, we’ve recently seen the establishment of a broadband grant program which explicitly bars municipal networks like FairlawnGig from participating.

Cooperative Winners

According to the press release, the projects will collectively connect nearly 77,000 households, 6,000 businesses and 636 anchor institutions. Among them are an array of municipal, county, and cooperative networks.

The Butler Rural Electric Cooperative, for instance, received $1.2 million for a fixed wireless project through its Velocity service east of Wichita where it will expand its service territory to the towns of Eureka, Severy, Piedmont, which collectively have 2,800 residents.

The North Central Kansas Community Network, a non-profit private organization in north-central Kansas, likewise received $76,000 to undertake four fixed wireless projects in Republic, Cloud, Mitchell, and Jewell Counties.

Fiber deployment in the state will see a boost too. The Wheatland Electric Cooperative, in the west-central part of the state, received $56,000 to complete a fiber deployment along one and a half miles along Main Street in Scott City to deliver 250 Mbps (Megabits per second) symmetrical service. Will serve to prove feasibility of similar business-district buildouts in the cooperative’s service territory in the future. Similarly, KanOkla Networks, with roots as a telephone cooperative that operates across state lines, received $1.1 million for a FTTP project expanding its existing network in Sumner and Cowley Counties to connect 54 farms and homes in the region. 

In a press release, Governor Kelly stressed the program’s importance as Covid-19 persists: 

As we see, the failure to invest put our rural and vulnerable communities at a stark disadvantage when the pandemic arrived. Virtual school, telemedicine appointments, working from home — these are all more difficult, sometimes even impossible to implement without a speedy and reliable Internet connection

Municipalities, Counties, and Anchor Institutions Too

A handful of the recipients also include counties and anchor institutions looking to upgrade existing facilities, as well as municipal networks which will use the funds for expansion.

The University of Kansas Health Authority’s network, which connects more than a hundred buildings, received more than $3 million to undertake upgrades at 27 of those facilities to better deliver telehealth services to patients during the ongoing pandemic. 

Wabaunsee, Finney, and Jefferson Counties all received funds to build either fixed wireless or fiber networks to bring health departments, emergency management, industrial parks, fairgrounds, local airports, and administrative buildings online. Wyandotte County got more than $2.8 million to extend its existing middle mile network and expand its dark fiber capacity to Bonner Springs, Edwardsville, and Kansas City.

Chanute, which has made stuttering steps towards a citywide FTTH network and last year voted to begin connecting two neighborhoods, got a $1.6 million boost to its efforts. 

And the Kansas Fiber Network, LLC, a local telecommunications provider made up of 29 partner companies (including one telephone cooperative), successfully applied for a total of seven projects totaling almost $2 million for projects that look like they will connect schools and medical centers while also expanding their dark fiber holdings. Half a decade ago the company brought much-needed competition to Cox in Pittsburg.

The only national Internet Service Provider (ISP) to get funds — Charter Spectrum — received $12,000 to build a hybrid fiber-coax network in a subdivision of the city of Lansing.

See the full list of winners and their projects here [pdf].

Broadband in Kansas

Between 20% and 30% of rural Kansans currently struggle with poor connectivity options, according to the director of the state’s broadband initiative. A Rural Prosperity Listening Tour report [pdf] issued in 2019 lists broadband among the most frequent problems identified in communities around the state, but as of yet no ongoing broadband grant program for infrastructure development exists. Because this round of grants was funded by federal CARES money, further investment on this scale depends on another injection of money.

Residents in Atchison are especially pleased at the announcement, citing years of unhappiness with AT&T’s residential service and a regional hospital that has long looked for broadband upgrades and redundancy as it grows to meet the community’s needs. 

Other states are likewise using CARES funding to make big investments in expanding Internet access. Mississippi’s electric cooperatives are making big moves as the result of $65 million allocated for projects which are underway.

Map via Kansas partnership with ConnectedNation

Header image by Lane Pearman (CC BY 2.0)