A study on broadband in Kansas offers a statewide strategy for infrastructure improvements

Broadband internet access in kansas, 2020, number of internet service providers. Source: university of kansas institute for policy and social research, federal communications commission data.

LAWRENCE — University of Kansas researchers have completed a two-year study of broadband access in Kansas. Their newly published report, “Broadband in Kansas. Challenges of Digital Access and Accessibility’ documents the wide-ranging challenges within the state’s current broadband landscape and proposes a comprehensive strategy to address those challenges.

The survey found that Kansas has a low level of satisfaction with Internet access and costs. The research team identified areas across the state where the only available internet is poor or no internet connection available. In addition, people living in areas with inadequate or inconsistent Internet service often pay high financial and time costs for this service.

These broadband coverage gaps limit the state’s economic growth, and they reflect the failure of the existing market to provide essential service, according to the researchers.

Furthermore, many Kansans live in only one service county. This lack of competition is associated with higher prices, lower speeds and lower satisfaction, the report said.

The KU-led research team also described a disconnect between Kansans’ digital literacy skills and tech support, based on field observations of people using public access computers and the Internet in libraries. As society becomes more dependent on web-based information, forms and resources, it is increasingly important that people have ways to access and use these resources. In addition to computer and Internet access in public spaces, researchers noted the importance of digital literacy support in those spaces.

Because the market failed to provide high-quality broadband access in Kansas and ensure people have the skills and resources needed in an increasingly digital world, the research team strongly recommended that the state develop a comprehensive strategy.

“The aim of our report was to understand where there were gaps in service in order to guide future investment in broadband. Our speed tests and survey provided some useful information to the Office of Broadband Development as it uses federal resources to address state broadband needs,” said Donna Guenther, principal investigator of the study, Roy A. Director of the KU Institute for Policy and Social Research.

The study participants compared broadband access in Kansas to the electrification of the state, which required significant investment from the federal government. “Flipping the switch” on electricity led to dramatic improvements in quality of life and economic growth. Study participants repeatedly told the team that affordable, high-speed Internet access in Kansas would lead to similar improvements in quality of life and economic opportunities.

The state of Kansas recently created an Office of Broadband Development. That office, if adequately funded, could become a clearinghouse for information on broadband needs, funding that could help meet these needs and initiatives to promote partnerships and improve communication and technology skills, the researchers said. The office may also lead the development and implementation of a strategy to identify ways to improve access and bridge digital divides in Kansas.

“In addition to the challenges, we also found pockets of opportunity for Kansas, particularly to be innovative in providing more universal access and digital equity across the state,” said co-author Germaine Halegua, John D. Evans Professor of Development and Associate Professor of Communication. Media at the University of Michigan. “Right now, there are several different private and public organizations that are working on providing Internet access in unserved and underserved areas, getting state and federal funds, collecting data on Kansas broadband, and that have ideas and resources to share, but they don’t always know about each other or work together. The Office of Broadband Communications is a valuable foundation for continually assembling, coordinating, leading and promoting these efforts.”

The study included a speed test, surveys, interviews, focus groups and field observations. The team collected data from Kansas residents, including people from urban, rural and peri-urban communities, with a range of incomes, technology skills and internet needs. The research team also worked with Kansas Internet service providers, state and local government representatives, and industry organizations that have invested in seeing significant improvements in Kansas’ broadband infrastructure.

The research team includes Guenther, Hallegua, Xan Wedel, Thomas Becker, and Genna Herd of the Institute for Policy and Social Research, as well as Walter Goettlich of the KU Department of Sociology. The study was funded by a University Center CARES Act grant from the Department of Economic Development.

Image: Broadband Internet Access in Kansas, 2020, Number of Internet Service Providers. Source: University of Kansas Institute for Policy and Social Research, Federal Communications Commission data.

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