Published January 6th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
If basic broadband is a run-of-the-mill sedan, gigabit internet is a sports car.
Hundreds of thousands of Missourians and Kansans could be revving up their internet speeds in coming years thanks to the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF).
The FCC recently selected 180 winning bidders to receive $9.2 billion in funding to provide increased internet access to 5.2 million unserved homes and businesses in 49 states and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. The new service, expected to be deployed over the next six years, includes 199,221 locations in Missouri and 46,827 locations in Kansas.
According to the FCC, more than 85% of those locations will receive gigabit speed broadband, which allows users to download music or videos in the blink of an eye. Gigabit speeds are about 40 times faster than the FCC’s current broadband definition of download speeds of 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of 3 megabits per second.
Missouri secured more than $346 million in broadband projects, the 11th most in the country. Kansas was awarded more than $62 million, the 35th highest amount in the auction. Both have locations that are eligible to receive gigabit internet access.
Winning bidders now will formally apply for the funds to be finalized and approved by the FCC. This process is expected to take three to six months before the projects are officially approved and work begins.
“I think it’s a really good way they set up RDOF to promote and encourage higher capacity, higher speeds if you will,” Kansas Director of Broadband Initiatives Stanley Adams said. “It’s a step in the right direction.”
The difference in gigabit internet and baseline broadband internet is speed.
For example, 100/20 megabits per second speeds are considered high speed. Gigabit internet is considered ultra high speed, since a gigabit offers downloads of 1,000 megabits per second. That’s a massive difference for households with multiple devices trying to do everything from home during a pandemic.
“One of the things we’ve seen through this pandemic is minimally adequate broadband is actually just that, minimally adequate,” Adams said. “Minimally adequate doesn’t mean that a family of four can have the parents both using the internet to connect with remote working, while two of their kids are doing their classroom on other computers.”
There are two technologies used to provide gigabit service. One is fiber-optic lines, like the ones used by Google Fiber in Kansas City. The second is an emerging technology called a DOCSIS 3.1 modem, which provides gigabit speeds while still using your standard cable internet.
Both of these options are more expensive than standard internet, however. A good DOCSIS 3.1 modem goes for anywhere from $150-200.
Cox, a top internet provider in Kansas, has expanded its gigabit coverage in the state. The company’s standard high speed plan (150 megabits per second download speeds) goes for $49.99 a month. The company’s gigabit plan (940 megabits per second download speeds) is nearly double that, at $99.99 a month.
There is not a clear sense of exactly how soon projects that could provide gigabit service would be completed. The FCC requires the winning bidders to meet certain buildout requirements over a six-year period. They are required to reach all assigned locations by the end of that period, and are incentivized to build out as fast as possible.
Those six years will be slow moving compared to projects done with the CARES Act funds given to the states for rural broadband projects, which needed to be finished by the end of 2020.
“The impact is going to be significant. The process itself takes a little bit of time,” said Missouri Director of Broadband Development Tim Arbeiter. “(We are) kind of managing expectations, while it’s significant and we’re excited about the number of subsidies coming into the state to these broadband providers to do the build-out.”
The potential of gigabit service in rural communities and increased funding to help bridge the digital divide is a step in the right direction, but it is not a cure-all for the problem of getting adequate internet access to everyone. Bloomberg recently reported that about 40% of rural households do not have reliable access to the internet.
The auction also was based on mapping that sometimes labels a census block covered, when in reality some locations within that census block don’t have access to the internet. Even so, the new projects will help show states where they need to send help in the future.
There were 17 auction winners bringing projects to Missouri, and 12 in Kansas.
CCO Holdings, LLC (Charter Communications) was the biggest winner in the auction, with more than 1.05 million locations across the country. While the company didn’t win any locations in Kansas, it secured more than $48 million for 61,000 locations in Missouri. Most of these locations were in the rural counties such as Cass, Henry and Benton southeast of Kansas City.
Charter Communications is home to Spectrum internet. A Spectrum representative declined comment on this story.
Both states will have new providers coming into the state.
LTD Broadband is a Minnesota-based service provider with coverage in Iowa, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Nebraska. The company will bring more than $158 million across nearly 53,000 locations in Missouri, and more than $3 million across 2,122 locations in Kansas. Service will be brought to the Chillicothe, Missouri, area, as well as a large presence in the southeast part of the state. In Kansas the company will bring service to the Leavenworth and Wyandotte counties.
LTD Broadband officials didn’t comment on details of the projects, but did say they were excited to bring better broadband options to rural areas, which has been their focus for the last decade.
Consortiums also were big winners in the two states.
The Rural Electrical Cooperative Consortium secured more than $88 million across nearly 45,000 locations in Missouri. Such consortiums are made up of similar companies to secure funding, and disperse it across the members of the consortium. In the Rural Electrical Cooperative Consortium’s case, it was made up of rural electrical co-ops around the Midwest. It will take some time for the states to know exactly what co-ops, or companies are in these consortiums.
“There’s a handful of consortiums that are representing a handful of companies, so we won’t know those specific companies until probably the official approval happens,” Arbeiter said. “Then the consortiums allocate those (funds) to their representative or member companies, if you will.”
The top bidder in Kansas was Resound Networks, LLC, a service provider with coverage in Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma, which was awarded more than $33 million across nearly 17,000 locations in the state, mostly in western Kansas. LTD Broadband was the top bidder in Missouri.
The picture is tentative right now, as final approvals still need to be obtained, but the potential of gigabit internet and increased funding is promising.
“In terms of the projects and the investment it’s good news, because it’s coming into our state and it’s going to improve connectivity,” Adams said. “So it’s just a matter of kind of a little bit of the devil is in the details for specific projects, which they haven’t announced yet.”
Jacob Douglas covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.