By Corinne Boyer – Kansas News Service
DODGE CITY — Kansas is bathed in shades of blue that stretch north to south, east to west. That’s not a reference to politics: It’s what the state looks like on the Federal Communications Commission’s Fixed Broadband Deployment map.
The map shows the approximate number of internet service providers within an area — the lighter blue represents fewer, the darker multiple. Considering the entire state is blue, you’d think internet service is available everywhere.
In reality, internet access has been a problem for Kansas residents, service providers, health care and lawmakers. So a new map was created with information supplied by dozens of providers around the state. And the data shows that more than 95,000 people, or about 3.5% of the state’s population, do not have internet access; places like rural eastern Kansas.
“We found, through this mapping exercise, that there actually are pockets of areas where people do live — here in Dodge City and even in the suburbs of Kansas City — that don’t have service, that need it,” said Brent Legg, who’s the vice president of government affairs with Connected Nation, at the State Independent Telephone Association Conference on July 30.
Connected Nation, a nonprofit, created the new map with a $300,000 grant from the Information Network of Kansas. It worked with internet service providers and deployed engineers to verify service providers’ data, so now multiple layers of broadband availability by speed and type are publically available.
Seventy-two of the state’s 88 internet service providers voluntarily submitted data, and FCC data was used for the companies that declined to respond or participate (Legg said none was available for six providers).
Jason Smith is CEO of Rainbow Telecommunications based in Everest, Kansas. He said the map is “desperately needed.” Laying fiber outside of of Rainbow Telecommunications’ coverage area is expensive.
“When you’re looking at anywhere from $20 to $40,000 a mile to build fiber services, you can’t make a business case on that for a small pocket of 10, 20 customers — it will never pay for itself,” Smith said. “And so you’re going to need types of grant funding.”
But federal grant funding for expanding rural internet service uses FCC census block data, which in rural and remote areas are larger and may even be measured by square miles. The census block data can lead to long and costly application processes for providers like Rainbow Telecommunications.
“So you might consider an area that you could help expand broadband to, but if you base it off those maps … they weren’t accurate,” Smith said. “So you would spend time and effort and money to find out you couldn’t participate in that program.”
What areas lack
Nationally, 19 million people in the U.S. don’t have access to broadband, according to the FCC. That’s about 5.8% of the population. Kansas’ connectivity rate is better than the national rate, but the lack of internet access can deter people from moving to and working remotely from rural areas, where populations are generally declining.
Earlier this year, some Kansans testified before the Statewide Broadband Expansion Planning Task Force about painfully slow internet speeds.
And some rural areas have seen hospitals close, Executive Manager of SITA Colleen Jamison said July 30, noting that broadband could deliver telemedicine to people who live hours away from specialized care.
“Maybe somebody who’s got a high-risk pregnancy in Ulysses, Kansas, and the nearest potential NICU for a birth maybe in Wichita,” Jamison said. “But that monthly or even weekly monitoring of maternal health could be so vitally important to that unborn child.”
And even though it may not be entirely useful for people who already don’t have internet, the new map contains an address search feature. For households without internet, searching online may involve traveling to a public place, but Legg said the new feature will be helpful to service providers that might be be unaware of unserved residents.
“So they may want to build out service into those areas,” Legg said. “It will also help service providers identify places where they could go apply for federal grant dollars to build out via the (U.S. Department of Agriculture) reconnect program, for instance.”
Pinks and purples on the new map indicate areas without internet, and some are found outside of eastern Kansas counties, including Atchison, Brown and Wabaunsee. Clicking on the unserved layers of the map shows where household are and how many don’t have access to internet.
Jamison said legislation authorized the creation of a more accurate map allowed it to guide the state’s broadband task force.
“The statewide broadband task force said, ‘Let’s look at what we recognize the issues that there are at the federal level.’ So let’s look at what can we do to ensure that Kansas is mapped as accurately as possible,” she said. “So that it guides the state efforts at the task force level and beyond.”
Corinne Boyer covers western Kansas for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @corinne_boyer or email cboyer (at) hppr (dot) org.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.
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