Kansas grants ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ chance to boost broadband — if applicants win race against time
Most rural hospitals have fallen on hard times — but not in Atchison.
Atchison General Hospital has seen a growth in the number of patients it served in recent years, and the hospital has even been planning to grow, buying the assets of a shuttered facility in Horton.
But there is at least one barrier still remaining, according to assistant city manager Justin Pregont: broadband internet connectivity.
While the hospital, like the city itself, is served by AT&T and Vyve Broadband, they both use one set of cables.
That means if there is an outage, both the hospital and Atchison residents alike are in trouble if they’re looking to get online. And residents say they are unhappy with the customer service provided by AT&T, while fear about a lack of competition looms.
The city does have a base level of broadband service, Pregont acknowledged, which is not true of smaller communities in the area.
But there are some parts of town that are not served and the area has found that it is too big to seek out many funding opportunities to beef up connectivity.
“The problem is [Atchison] is not really big enough to attract big investments outside of major anchor institutions,” Pregont said. “But we’re too small to receive any provider of last resort subsidy ... We kind of exist in this donut hole.”
To resolve this, the city, alongside Atchison County and Rainbow Communications, applied for a Connectivity Emergency Response Grants — a program set up by the state using $50 million in federal CARES Act funds to address broadband issues throughout the state.
Some counties, including Atchison, also opted to use some of their county allotment of CARES Act funds to help communities who lacked service before the pandemic.
The irony is that money, which only would have come about because of COVID-19, is being funneled into solving a problem which the pandemic has laid bare.
“In my business, the silver lining of the COVID virus has been that everyone realizes that broadband is super important and wants to do things about deploying it,” said Catherine Moyer, CEO of Pioneer Communications, a Ulysses-based provider.
Anywhere from 20% to 30% of the state’s rural population lacks access to basic broadband service, which the Federal Communications Commission defines as a 25 megabits per second download speed and a 3 mbps upload speed, according to Stanley Adams, director of the state’s Broadband Initiative.
And issues also exist in urban areas for residents who lack the ability to afford high-speed internet or are less digitally literate.
But the true scope of the state’s rural broadband problem is still an open question. Part of the problem is that good data is hard to come by.
“We need a set of facts we can all agree to,” Adams said.
While the FCC reports which areas theoretically have coverage, that data is based off of what is called the Form 477, which experts agree is unreliable because it uses Census blocks to report coverage.
If one household has sufficient broadband in a given Census block, which in western Kansas can be sizable, the entire block is registered as having minimal connectivity when that could be far from the case.
“Here locally we could come up with a lot of examples of people who aren’t getting minimally acceptable service, even though that is what is reported in the databases,” Pregont said.
In an attempt to rectify that, the state partnered last year with Connected Nation, a Kentucky-based nonprofit, to develop a more accurate map than what can be compiled based on federal data.
The result, the Kansas Broadband Map, is not perfect, some say, as it relies on data self-reported by internet service providers — not all of whom wanted to participate.
But it gives a better baseline for what the scope of the state’s problem actually is, according to Brent Legg, ConnectedNation’s vice president of government affairs.
Looking at the map, Legg says, underscores a truth about broadband in Kansas: It isn’t just far-flung farms that lack connectivity but also homes in relatively populated areas, like Dodge City, Liberal and even Atchison.
“You could have the biggest impact, the biggest bang for your buck, if you focus on those areas that have been identified as unserved but have a relatively high household density so you can knock out more locations,” Legg said. “If you focus in ... on those areas on the map, you’re going to be able to impact a lot of households in short order.”
The goal is for more communities across the state to look like Pittsburg.