Closing digital divide in Kansas likely to cost $500 million, but pandemic funds are helping
TOPEKA — Daniel Friesen doesn’t want geography to be the determining factor of whether Kansas communities have access to high-quality broadband service.
He started a company in Buhler dedicated to providing fiber-to-the-home internet and was prepared to leap when the COVID-19 pandemic exposed service gaps in education, commerce, health care and at home in Kansas. That’s when the federal government began pouring CARES Act relief money into states, and Kansas officials earmarked $50 million of that for broadband expansion.
Friesen, founder and chief innovative officer of IdeaTek, took on 66 broadband projects in rural, underserved areas of 17 Kansas counties. Contracts valued at $18 million unleashed dozens of plows and bore machines. It led to installation of hundreds of miles of cable and construction of 70 telecommunications towers.
Twenty communities in the state had their first taste of fiber-optic service via the IdeaTek projects. The endeavor resulted in network expansions capable of serving 13,000 homes and businesses.
“This was a problem that needed a solution that involved a substantial amount of investment,” Friesen said on the Kansas Reflector podcast. “There really isn’t a market-based solution for a lot of these issues. That is an area that either we decide as a country we’re going to leave these people behind, or we decide as a country we’re going to step up and help them.”
He said Meade County previously had no high-speed connectivity, but the federally financed program brought that up to about 100%. In the past, students in the county had to drive to the top of hills to use cellphone hotspots for schoolwork.
Broadband helped Pratt County farmers struggling to use precision mapping technology of fields. In Chase County, the expansion resolved day-to-day connectivity problems for a bank and other businesses, he said.
“The stories go on and on. It’s very rewarding to be in this business and be able to help change people’s lives,” Friesen said.
In April 2020, the Kansas Legislature adopted and Gov. Laura Kelly signed a bill dedicating $85 million for broadband infrastructure through 2030. In the first three years of the initiative, $5 million would be allocated by the state to broadband projects. The figure would rise to $10 million annually in the following seven years. The objective is to partner with the private sector to double that overall investment.
“The CARES Act turbocharged our efforts,” Adams said. “We were already headed down the right path. Robust connectivity (is) critical to economic growth, critical to health care, public education.”
He said there was growing urgency among policymakers to make investments necessary to deliver broadband to all communities in Kansas. The pandemic convinced more people that students require solid internet for distance learning, doctors need it to take advantage of telemedicine opportunities and business owners striving to be competitive need reliable links to the wider world, he said.
Stanley Adams, broadband development office director at the Kansas Department of Commerce, said the state must continue to improve high-speed internet service to advance education, health care and the economy.
“To move economically and to move forward in our education and health care areas as well as others, we have to have robust connectivity,” Adams said. “It is the great equalizer.”
The nonprofit organization Kansas Appleseed reported 165,000 Kansans didn’t 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.
Friesen said the pandemic illuminated service deficiencies across Kansas, but the problem was most acute in rural areas. Nationally, nearly all urban areas offer some form of high-speed fixed broadband. About two-thirds of the nation’s rural communities have comparable access.
“The components of COVID and isolating people to their homes really overwhelmed an already poor-functioning, rural broadband infrastructure in the United States and in Kansas,” Friesen said.
He said the cost of closing the digital divide in Kansas could be in the neighborhood of $500 million. Deepening the state’s telecommunications prowess will occur more quickly if government subsidies encourage broadband development, he said.
Tim Carpenter is a reporter for the news agency Kansas Reflector.