The State Finance Council on Monday approved $60 million in grants to better beef up the state’s broadband infrastructure, although lawmakers acknowledge it won’t fully address the scope of the problem in rural Kansas.
The money will come from the state’s allotment of federal CARES Act funding and will be funneled out in two separate grant programs. One, a $50 million pot, will aim to bolster internet speeds in underserved areas, while the remaining $10 million is designed to specifically help low-income residents.
The Kansas Broadband Map, released last year by the nonprofit Connected Nation, showed that 3.5% of the state’s population, or 90,000 residents, lack internet access.
Kansas Commerce Secretary Dave Toland said those barriers are unacceptable in the 21st century. More broadband access, he said, was "the most important economic development issue of our time" for increasing access to distance learning, telehealth and business investment.
"For the first time, the state of Kansas has the resources to do something about broadband, rather than just talk and study, as we have for 20 years," Toland said.
Stanley Adams, director of the state’s Broadband Initiative, said the $50 million fund mirrors similar programs launched in Nebraska and Iowa.
It would focus on internet service providers working on projects that could be finished by year’s end, when federal CARES Act money must be spent.
That means a quick turnaround, with one of the key questions when reviewing applications being whether a project is feasible. Partnerships with private companies will be emphasized, and the state was already familiar with a handful of projects underway that met the requisite criteria, Adams said.
"We’re looking for private sector solutions and innovation. We know we’re up against a tight clock, but we believe it can get done," he told lawmakers.
The smaller pot of money would be designated for improving access for low-income Kansans. Adams said the program would be able to roll out more quickly as the department partners with ISPs to figure out where low-income residents live and target service there.
But the aggressive timeline and limited amount of money means that the entire scope of Kansas’ rural broadband issues can’t fully be addressed, said Rep. Troy Waymaster, R-Bunker Hill.
The program would instead hopefully serve as a "start to a more robust program," he said.
But the need for the grant was underscored later in the virtual hearing, which was held via Zoom. When the feed of Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, R-Overland Park, was briefly choppy, he blamed it on poor internet connection.
"We’re trying to take care of that," Gov. Laura Kelly said in reply.
Kelly acknowledged that more money would be needed but said the hope was that Congress would be releasing more aid to states, which could plug in the gaps.
"We’re still waiting with baited breath to see what the feds do," she said. "Hopefully, we will be able to increase this amount significantly going forward."
The lone vote against the broadband funding, as well as most of the agenda items, was House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, who did so in protest of what he called misleading information from KDHE Secretary Lee Norman about COVID-19 spread in counties that adopted a mask mandate and those that didn’t.
Kelly had to cut Hawkins off at one point as he spoke against what he considers a lack of transparency in her administration.
"Due to the fact that your administration has a problem with transparency, that you have agencies that are giving out not-so-good information, and the fact that you don’t want to allow me to speak, I vote no," he said of the broadband item.