SEDAN — When it comes to broadband Internet access at home, Kathleen McCorkle says she can take it or leave it.
"I live in the country and can't get anything but dial-up," said McCorkle, the town librarian in Sedan, who adds that the slow speed doesn't really bother her for the little she uses it at home. "By the time I work on the computer five to seven hours a day here (at the library), I don't really want to be on it at home."
But Heidi Main, owner of an Internet coffee house in Junction City, said she practically can't live without her high-speed home access.
"I refuse to go back to something as awful as dial-up," said Main, owner of the Main Grind. "I think dial-up should be outlawed."
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These are the two ends of the spectrum of high-speed Internet use in Kansas.
Junction City is the county seat of Geary County, which, according to a new report from the Federal Communications Commission, is the most broadband-wired county in Kansas. More than 8 out of 10 residents there have high-speed Internet at home.
Sedan is the county seat of Chautauqua County, where fewer than 2 in 10 residents have home broadband connections. Only Rawlins County, in the remote northwest corner of the state, is as unwired, according to the FCC data.
The FCC has reported data on broadband usage for years. But previous reports defined broadband as anything above a download speed of 200 kilobits per second, a speed that is only about four times as fast as dial-up service.
This year's report, released last month, is the first to report the percentage of users with a connection speed of at least 768 kilobits per second, said Mark Wigfield of the FCC.
That's the minimum speed to qualify for federal stimulus grants that were approved by Congress last year to boost the nation's economy and expand broadband access.
The FCC data shows that Kansas is right on the national average for broadband connection, with 60 percent of the state's households hooked up to at least a 200-kilobit service.
That ties Kansas with Utah, Oregon and Wisconsin for the 21st-highest connection rate among the states.
But there is significant variation across Kansas. In general, rural and lower-income counties have much lower connection rates, the FCC data shows.
In 59 counties — more than half the counties in the state — fewer than 4 out of 10 households have a 768-kilobit connection at home.
In 39 counties, between 40 and 60 percent of the population is wired. Only seven counties have more than 60 percent of households plugged into high-speed Internet access.
Among the state's more populous counties, Johnson, Douglas and Riley counties all fall in the 60 to 80 percent range.
Sedgwick County falls in the 40 to 60 percent range, along with Shawnee, Wyandotte, Reno, Saline and Leavenworth counties.
The most connected
Geary County residents were at first surprised to learn that their county has the highest high-speed connection rate in the state.
"That's kind of weird," said Chris Ostermann, who works in the dairy department of the Dillons grocery store in Junction City.
He said he would have thought that honor would go to the more affluent Johnson County, or possibly Riley or Douglas, the home counties of Kansas State University and the University of Kansas.
Assistant City Manager Mike Guinn had roughly the same reaction.
Noting that Geary county is the smallest county geographically in the state, he said, "It's just hard to believe that Wichita or Kansas City or Topeka don't blow us away."
But he also noted that like the bigger cities, Geary County is well wired for high-speed access through cable TV and phone services. And it has something that larger and richer counties don't have — a dominant military presence.
Junction City sits in the shadow of the mammoth Fort Riley Army base, and the town is largely populated with soldiers, military retirees and their families.
"If I were a betting man, I would say it's the high military presence we have," he said. "That (high-speed Internet) is the way they keep information flowing and stay connected."
Spot on, said Joni Reynoso, who recently moved to Junction City when her husband was transferred to the base.
"They (soldiers and dependents) all have laptops and they're all on the Internet," she said. "My family is all in Washington state and I use the Internet to keep in touch with them."
Main said the high-speed Internet has helped her keep in touch with her husband, Michael, a staff sergeant deployed to Afghanistan. While voice phone calls from the war zone are rare, the couple can fairly easily exchange text messages and pictures through the Internet, she said.
"It's the first time in 18 years I have that connection with him by communication," Main said.
She bought her coffeehouse while her husband was deployed and said Internet communication has helped him to help her cope with the stressful early days of establishing a small business.
"He may not be able to lay his hands on my shoulder and support me," she said. "But I can talk to him when I need to, and that's enough support and I'll take it. It's a lot more than what we had before."
She said she just couldn't get that through dial-up.
"It's just archaic and it takes forever," she said. "It's loud and it kicks you off. It's unreliable."
The least connected
In Sedan, high-speed Internet just hasn't caught on like it has in Junction City.
Sedan has an older cable-TV system that can't carry high-speed Internet traffic without a substantial upgrade, said Tim Hills, the president of the First National Bank, who served for 22 years on the City Council and the last 2 1/2 years as mayor.
The only legitimate option for true high-speed Internet service is through telephone lines — which he has, Hill said. But even that isn't available throughout the community.
Satellite Internet services are available, but they cost two to four times what residents of urban communities pay for phone and cable broadband.
The FCC report showed a clear relationship between income and Internet access, with high-income groups more than twice as likely to have broadband as low-income groups.
And when the government periodically releases studies on per-capita income across Kansas, "we (Chautauqua County) are always the poorest or next-to-poorest county in the state," Hills said.
Sedan's scanty access to high-speed Internet at home puts pressure on the public library to compensate, McCorkle said. The library has four public Internet stations, which see heavy use from teenagers.
Andrew Miller, a 13-year-old seventh-grader, comes in regularly to check his social networks and "play a bunch of games."
He said he knows only about 10 schoolmates out of 200 who have high-speed Internet service at home.
The lack of service in Sedan has led to some workarounds for those who need or want access.
In addition to its own computers, the library maintains a 24-hour Wi-Fi hotspot where residents who bring their own computers can access the Internet through wireless networking, either in the library or close by it outside.
Jeremy Haughn is one of the lucky users. He lives almost next door to the library and can connect to its Wi-Fi from home.
For others, it takes a special trip. "It's not unusual to see four or five cars parked out here at all hours of the night, because they have to," to get broadband access, he said.
Some people have just decided to bypass true high-speed access entirely. Town florist Maricela McCann has a laptop at her Prairie Blossoms shop connected to a cell-phone Internet system — faster than dial-up but slower than true high-speed broadband.
McCann said she's using that less and less since getting an iPhone with a data plan. She said most of her orders are called in by voice phone anyway, and she uses the cell phone to swap pictures of flower arrangements with her customers.
"Really, this is all I need," she said.
Mayor Hills said the city recognizes that Sedan is way behind the curve on Internet access and applied for a rural broadband grant from the federal government. The city sought about $1 million in federal stimulus money to erect a high-power Wi-Fi network that would have brought broadband service to all but the most low-lying areas of the community.
"We didn't get it, because the rural communities of Los Angeles, Seattle and Boston got the money," he said.
Sedan is reapplying this year — and hoping that the FCC report showing Chautauqua County's dismal broadband connection rate might help.
"You'd think that would pull some weight," Hills said.