Published April 6th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
PAOLA, Kansas — At the bottom of a hill on a dead end gravel road about two miles outside of Paola is the home of Meagan and Adam Black.
Their home is surrounded by trees left barren from the winter. As spring arrives they will sprout new leaves, which will eventually block the view of the Paola water tower, and some grain silos further east.
Those leaves won’t just block views of local landmarks, though. They’ll also interfere with the line-of-sight wireless connection that brings them access to the internet that is so crucial to modern life. The Blacks currently pay more than $100 a month for speeds that don’t always meet the 25/3 megabits per second minimum broadband standard.
“It is absolutely insane, but it’s all we can get,” Meagan said.
In the winter the family has to knock snow off of the satellite dish to get an internet connection. During heavy rain, forget about it. Such spotty access makes things difficult for a family trying to help their daughter navigate school from home.
The Blacks are like many other families in east central Kansas. According to a Kansas Health Institute (KHI) study, more than 40% of people in that part of the state lack adequate access to broadband internet. It’s the third highest percentage of the population without adequate access in the state.
All despite being an hour away from blazing fast fiber internet speeds the Kansas City area.
In this part of the state, the problem with internet access takes different forms. About 40% of folks in east central Kansans have a device that can connect to broadband, but lack the access. Meanwhile, about 25% have access to broadband, but don’t have a device to make the connection.
“So when I look at this, over half of it is in that (group with) no high speed access but with a device,” said Emily Burgen, an analyst at KHI. “To me, this is an infrastructure issue.”
Miami County Commissioner Rob Roberts agrees.
“I absolutely think it’s infrastructure,” Roberts said.
The county is aware of their internet issues, and Roberts says they are open to working with providers to implement new broadband buildouts in the area.
One example is two 911 towers being built by Motorola near Hillsdale Lake and in the southern part of the county. Roberts said that while the main purpose of the towers is for 911 service, he hopes to allow service providers to build wireless connections off of the towers.
On the Miami/Johnson county line in Spring Hill, residents saw the third slowest internet speeds in the country, according to 2019 speed test data from Highspeedinternet.com. A Kansas-based internet company, RG Fiber, set out to find out the extent of the internet problem in the town. The answer was that over 70% of homes and businesses in town did not have access to minimum standard broadband speeds.
Mike Bosch, founder and CEO of RG Fiber, has been working on getting expanded access to the town since 2017. In 2020, with the help of a SPARK grant from the state that provided 80% of the funding, RG Fiber was able to build out 25 miles worth of cable in Spring Hill.
“The construction process can be a long and tiresome one,” Bosch said. “It is a messy process and can take a long time, especially when you are doing a massive area.”
Another problem RG Fiber ran into was actually getting materials. Bosch said that the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted supply chains as well as increased demand for fiber build outs. The wait for wire has stretched from 6-8 weeks prior to the pandemic to about 6 months today. Moreover, smaller providers like RG Fiber typically get pushed to the back of the line.
Shashi Dhungel works in technology, and runs a remote business out of his home. He lives a couple of miles away from the Blacks, outside of Paola. His average speeds are below the minimum standard broadband speed. He is currently on his fourth provider and paying close to $100 a month.
“If I had known the internet would be this kind of problem, I would not have bought this house,” Dhungel said.
This is the reality of life for those on the “last mile,” which is the distance between individual homes and businesses that need to be connected to from main fiber lines.
“Those are the hardest, those are absolutely the hardest (to connect),” Bosch said. “Unfortunately, there is no real easy answer.”
Bosch believes it will take private and public cooperation to get access to people living on the last mile, as getting build outs to these areas is financially challenging for providers.
“So much of our geography is not densely populated, which makes the business case really challenging in a large number of places across our state,” said Stanley Adams, director of broadband initiatives for the state of Kansas.
Besides stretching scarce resources across sparsely populated areas, providers like RG Fiber have to contend with rocky ground in this part of the state.
“When you look at east central Kansas, just drive down 69 highway and look to both sides, you’re just going to see rock,” Bosch said. “We have a lot of rocks, and it takes a lot more to get through that rock.”
The bulk of the cost of laying fiber in the ground comes from the digging, according to Bosch. With multiple barriers to putting wire into the ground, some providers may turn to alternatives such as using utility poles to run fiber. But that poses challenges as well.
While using utility poles is cheaper and faster, it presents logistical issues that aren’t there with laying fiber in the ground. An engineering firm needs to be hired to evaluate whether the poles could handle the weight of fiber cables. Additionally, not all utility poles are the same size, so a provider may need to pay to replace a shorter utility pole. Bosch says that this takes coordination with other companies working off of these poles, which can create logistical nightmares for providers.
But why is fiber essential? It provides gigabit speeds that some believe are more important now than ever.
“I’m increasingly concerned about this minimally adequate threshold,” Adams said. “It kind of distorts the picture and creates a false impression that everywhere that has minimally adequate access is okay. We’re finding that it’s not OK.”
Adams tells a story of a video conference meeting he was having with some colleagues about broadband, when one of the people in the meeting started to freeze up. His wife was doing a telehealth appointment in the other room. All of this happened on 25/3 Mbps speeds.
“I’m no longer sure that we should even think about 25/3 as minimally adequate,” Adams said. “What we’re seeing from a health care and education standpoint, all of a sudden when you’ve got multiple people at home on the same connection, 25/3 was not getting the job done.”
Getting gigabit service to the last mile will be a challenge for the state and providers going forward, with no clear answers on the horizon. But with federal and state funding for broadband becoming more of a priority, bipartisan issue, there is still hope to connect.
“I think ultimately you are going to have to find a provider who is willing to make it happen, who is committed to finding a way to make it happen,” Bosch said. “And not just the provider that’s going to have to come to partner, but also a public (entity) whether that’s the county, the city or even the state. (They) are really going to have to start getting creative and work together to figure out how we can solve those difficult challenges together.”
Jacob Douglas covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.