by Tim Carpenter, Kansas Reflector
September 4, 2023
TOPEKA — Jade Piros de Carvalho sits in the control center of an ambitious $451 million, five-year initiative to deliver high-speed connectivity to tens of thousands of Kansans left behind by an internet revolution intersecting commerce, education, health care and entertainment.
Piros de Carvalho, director of the Kansas Office of Broadband Development, was appointed in 2022 after working for internet service provider IdeaTek and serving on the Hutchinson City Council, including three terms as mayor. Her job with the state is to facilitate growth in affordable, reliable internet for homes and businesses.
Passage of federal legislation prompted the National Telecommunication Information and Administration to earmark $451 million to Kansas for the purpose of narrowing the digital divide.
“We want to make sure we’re investing in the highest level of broadband that meets the needs not just for today,” Piros de Carvalho said on the Kansas Reflector podcast. “Businesses and households that don’t have that connection are really cut off from participating in the economy and our democracy. I mean, literally, everything in our lives today seems to be tied to broadband, right?”
Gov. Laura Kelly said the state’s comprehensive Broadband Equity Access and Deployment plan had been submitted to the federal government outlining an approach to grappling with unserved and underserved areas. Other administrative steps remain, but funding for infrastructure could start flowing in 2024.
The underlying goal of the federal initiative authorized by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was to speed the delivery of quality internet service by funding partnerships with states, local governments and businesses. The Kansas congressional delegation’s votes on the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act were split along party lines with five Republicans opposed and the lone Democrat in favor of the bill.
“By combining public and private efforts, we can maximize the impact of our investments and create a robust broadband infrastructure that supports economic growth and innovation for decades to come,” said Lt. Gov. David Toland, secretary of the Kansas Department of Commerce.
Piros de Carvalho said about 150,000 Kansans lacked subscriptions to high-speed internet. The service gap was largely attributable to lack of infrastructure with 87,000 locations unserved and 57,000 underserved by broadband across the 105 counties, four sovereign tribal nations and 1,900 cities, towns and villages in Kansas.
Half the population in eight counties were found to be unserved or underserved, while 37 counties had at least one-fourth of residents in those service categories.
In May, a report showed 438,000 Kansas households were eligible for connectivity financial assistance but only 103,000 were enrolled. That ranked Kansas 35th in the nation. In addition, 6.8% of Kansans didn’t have an internet-ready computer, tablet or device capable of handling audio and video transactions. This reality most often applied to lower-income groups, veterans, older adults and non-English speakers.
“It really is, universally across Kansas, a barrier,” she said. “Most of those are in rural areas, because you know, it’s more difficult to build to less density. We also have pockets in urban areas.”
She said officials conducted town halls in dozens of community centers, libraries and churches in Kansas to gather insight into the problem. In each, she said, the agricultural sector made a persuasive case it had difficulty competing without links to broadband.
Many rural Kansas communities without broadband access, especially economically distressed locales, lacked infrastructure to support business development, resident retention, emergency services and access to telehealth. Urban locations, especially multiple dwelling units, suffered likewise.
“How many jobs can you apply for that require a paper application? Probably not many that pay a living wage, right?” Piros de Carvalho said. “If you want government services, you have to apply online. If you want to see a doctor in your remote area, you can’t access telehealth. If you want to go to school remotely … if you have a remote job, all of these things factor into why broadband is so crucial and essential in our everyday lives.”
Private business balked at extending infrastructure in some rural areas because the cost of reaching isolated homes and businesses was prohibitively high. Providers view the expenditure unrealistic if the return-on-investment horizon amounted to decades, Piros de Carvalho said.
She said grants under the new program would be available to tribal entities, cooperatives, nonprofits, government units as well as traditional internet providers. The federal legislation required a minimum 25% match to access funding.
Challenges on docket
She said the preference would be to bury fiber cable to every Kansas location in need, but that wasn’t likely due to the high cost. It’s likely three-fourths of the work would involve fiber with the remainder accomplished by aerial wireless technology, she said.
“There’s just not a universe where we feel we’re going to get to universal connectivity if we tried to do 100% fiber,” Piros de Carvalho said. “I sure wish we could. It is the most future-proof technology.”
Piros de Carvalho said control of previous federal broadband initiatives was concentrated at the federal level, but this law enabled states to take a larger role in determining how money was invested.
“We went all across the state, and heard from the lived experience of those, you know, living in the digital divide on what the gaps were in their community. When you develop a plan that way, instead of on high … it makes it more powerful. It’s got more buy in and it’s going to be more effective,” she said.
She said financial aid from the federal government and bipartisan support by the Democratic governor and the Republican-led Legislature would guarantee progress on the broadband front.
Procurement lead times for conduit, vaults, fiber, junction boxes, wireless radios, towers, antennas, cabinets, connectors, termination panels, switches and other equipment could be a challenge. Workforce shortages were expected for all broadband-related roles in Kansas, especially technical and labor-intensive roles required to deploy fiber and fixed wireless infrastructure in the field. Kansas proposed using 5% of the $451 million for workforce development applicable to expansion of broadband infrastructure, she said.
“Every single state and territory is getting these funds,” Piros de Carvalho. “So that’s definitely putting those sorts of constraints and pressures. But that’s one reason why Kansas is trying to move very quickly, because we don’t want to be in a position where we’re last in line in the nation competing for those resources.”
Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: email@example.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.