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Spread of broadband may fuel economy

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, Oct. 25, 2010, at 12:02 a.m.
  • Updated Monday, Oct. 25, 2010, at 6:17 a.m.

The prospects for rural Kansas could shift dramatically in the next few years as broadband or high-speed Internet services are provided to more Kansans.

As more rural communities come online, they will help fuel the nation's economy, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture administrator who spoke at the Kansas Broadband Summit on Sunday at the Wichita Marriott. The meeting continues today.

"We believe this is a foundation for rural economic growth," said David Villano, assistant administrator with the USDA Rural Utilities Service. "Time and time again when businesses are considering locating to a rural community, they will ask, 'Do you have broadband?' And if the answer is no, they move on elsewhere."

The summit is a gathering of industry, government and civic leaders who are leading discussions about Kansas' broadband Internet landscape. It drew about 200 people from across the Midwest.

"In order for our national economy to be strong, we must have a rural economy that is vibrant," Villano said. "We want to give young people in rural America the opportunity to stay and contribute to the communities they grew up in. By building an affordable 21st century infrastructure, our objective is to turn rural areas into employment zones and centers of innovation."

The summit is being hosted by the Kansas Department of Commerce, which is also leading the Connect Kansas initiative, an effort to increase

broadband Internet in the state's underserved areas.

Connect Kansas was launched last year through the federal Recovery Act.

"With grant money coming to the state, we are now developing a plan on how we move forward," said Joe Monaco, public information officer with the Kansas Department of Commerce. "We want to make sure all the key stockholders are on the same page."

Currently, 90 percent of Kansans have access to broadband, Monaco said, "but only 60 percent have adopted it. So part of where we go from here is educating not only consumers, but also policymakers, government officials and emergency responders on the benefits of adopting broadband."

Think about what broadband can do, Monaco said: from improving cell phone reception in rural areas of Kansas to something as complicated and lifesaving as sending MRIs from doctor to doctor.

"It's not just about consumer shopping and sending e-mails but in the ability to conduct business," Monaco said.

During his speech Sunday, Villano likened the federal government's broadband initiative to Franklin D. Roosevelt's creation of the Rural Electrification Administration in 1935 that revolutionized farm life.

In the early days, REA officials often went door to door convincing residents to sign up for electricity, telling them it was safe and that it could improve their quality of life.

The Connect Kansas initiative has two components, Monaco said. It will map Kansas' broadband capacity as well as provide federal grants and loans to the nine Kansas businesses and organizations currently building and expanding broadband projects.

The state was awarded $6.4 million for the mapping and planning and more than $137 million for expanding broadband. The largest award went to the Rural Telephone Co., which received nearly $101 million to provide the broadband infrastructure 4,600 square miles in northwest Kansas.

Today, the summit will hear from Lt. Gov. Troy Findley and Sharon Gillett of the Federal Communications Commission.

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com.

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