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Connecting Kansas

Connecting Kansas

After a few days of blaming our service provider for a shaky internet connection, I recently discovered the real problem was the decade-old Wi-Fi router when it quit transmitting signal in the middle of a workday. I uttered a few choice words as I pulled out my phone and checked a local store for a viable replacement.

I decided to go ahead and replace the modem as well since it predated the router. I found a decently priced combo, drove across town and back, then said a few more words while getting the whole thing set up. All told, it took just under an hour to complete.

It was a minor inconvenience, and I had access to several workarounds if I wasn’t able to buy a new router immediately. I could have taken the old-fashioned route of connecting a computer directly to the modem like our caveman ancestors did. I also could have used my phone as a hotspot.

In any event, the mild annoyance I encountered pales in comparison to the struggle of thousands of Kansans who lack any connectivity options at all. The pandemic has put a spotlight on just how important fast, reliable internet is for the state to prosper.

Education, health care, business, entertainment and work are all possible uses in connected households. Kansas will spend $50 million in CARES Act funding to hook up an estimated 70,000 households to broadband, defined as download speeds of 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of 3 megabits per second.

It’s a step in the right direction, but the 67 projects across the state will only scratch the surface of connecting every home, business, school and health facility to modern technology. The hard part in any network is always making the last-mile delivery.

In cities where density means a mile of fiberoptic cable can give a company access to tens of thousands of potential customers or a wireless transceiver can cover multiple blocks, private companies will readily invest.

But on the outskirts of town where there are fewer people and greater distances, the potential profit goes down. It evaporates entirely when you start looking at farms and ranches across Kansas that are miles apart. There’s a reason only 4 percent of urban Americans lack access to broadband while nearly 40 percent of their rural counterparts are searching for signal.

The goal of connecting Kansas may seem too hard, too expensive, too slow, but I can guarantee you it’s worth all the, toil, trouble and time. Imagine where our state would be today if large swaths of the countryside lacked access to electricity or phone service.

Broadband internet is the latest in a string of societal advances that will require a mix of solutions for everyone to gain access. While it’s tempting to just dust off the template used to light up every home in America for broadband, that misses the reality of the current technology.

Fiber, wireless or beams from space are all options for increasing connectivity. Government action, like tax incentives, grants or regulation also has a role to play.

Broadband access isn’t a silver bullet for rural revitalization, but it will open up tremendous opportunities for farmers, ranchers and others who want to live in wide-open spaces but still feel connected to the rest of the world.

Someday I hope everyone gets to experience the joy of hurriedly replacing a bad router in the middle of a workday. The sooner the better.