Christianne Parks says if rural Kansas can’t keep up with the Internet, she’s probably out of here.
“Eventually, I probably would get bored out of my mind and leave,” said Parks, a 19-year-old who lives in Allen and is studying psychology at Emporia State University 20 miles to the south.
The slow rollout of high-speed broadband internet service is the latest existential threat to rural Kansas.
The sparsely populated region has been losing population for decades as farms have consolidated. That in turn led to steep declines in Main Street businesses.
Since 2000, 81 of Kansas’ 105 counties have lost population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The consensus is that trend will get worse – especially among young people – until and unless someone can find a way to get better internet service to the outlands.
“It really all comes down to a quality of life perspective,” said Brian Thomason of the Blue Valley Tele-Communications Co., based in the city of Home near the Nebraska border north of Manhattan. “I think we all live that. That’s our jobs, to provide that.”
The overarching issue is how to pay for replacing thousands of miles of obsolete copper wire with modern fiber-optic cable, without making internet service so expensive for customers that only businesses and the wealthy would be able to afford it.
The costs are staggering, about $20,000 a mile for fiber cable to serve widely dispersed customers in small villages and isolated farms.
The government is taking notice.
Seeking to keep Parks and others like her – educated young people who everyone agrees are vital to saving rural Kansas – two of the nation’s top rural communications officials came here last week on a fact-finding mission.
Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts brought Ajit Pai, a member of the Federal Communications Commission, to Allen to meet with officials from about a dozen small telephone companies who are facing difficulty upgrading their networks.
The FCC makes the regulations for the system, and much of the money to pay for rural broadband expansion flows through the Senate Agriculture Committee, which Roberts chairs.
“I don’t know of anybody on the Senate Agriculture Committee, on either side, who does not want to further expand our investment in broadband,” Roberts said. “The support is there. The problem of course is the budget.”
Patchwork of internet
At present, rural Kansas has a patchwork of high- and low-speed internet. Some companies have bitten the cost bullet and installed the fiber. Others still rely on outdated early DSL technology that comes through the regular phone line.
Although that can handle basic business tasks such as checking crop prices or a weather report, customers say it’s generally not enough for complex business dealings or the streaming movie services and online games that young customers have come to expect.
Parks said she has internet service at home but “it’s really slow.”
“I wish my brother were here,” she added. “He literally said it should be illegal to have speeds this slow.”
Nikki Plankington, the town librarian, said the library was only able to get enough bandwidth to set up a Wi-Fi hot spot three years ago with help from the Manhattan library system. It’s made the Allen library a popular destination for internet-starved townspeople.
“There are several people who will watch movies outside” after hours, she said. “The kids use it for the Pokemon Go thing. I don’t know what that’s all about, but the kids use it.”
Who pays for expansion?
In a round-table discussion at the town’s cramped senior center, telephone executives had a lot of complaints for Pai and Roberts.
One of the biggest was about who has to pay for expanding broadband – and who doesn’t.
Much of the funding for broadband deployment in rural areas comes from the Universal Service Fund, created by Congress in 1934 to string phone lines to isolated communities and farms. In 2009, the FCC expanded universal service to include broadband and created the “Connect America Fund” to help spread the money around.
The idea behind universal service is to assess a small amount from all telephone customers – including those in densely populated and cheap-to-serve urban and suburban markets – to pay the extra cost of stringing long lines to isolated areas.
Check your own phone bill and you’ll find the monthly universal service charges from both the federal and state governments.
But some telephone company officials say that kind of end-user funding is obsolete in the context of the internet, where the biggest users of the system aren’t necessarily the end-of-the-line consumers.
The way it works now, ordinary customers bear the cost of upgrading and operating the systems while internet titans such as Netflix, Amazon and Google reap huge revenue from using the network, said Catherine Moyer of Pioneer Communications, which serves the southwest corner of Kansas.
“My customers and the customers here in Allen and all the customers in Wichita for that matter that have voice service pay a proportion of their bill,” she said. But, “there’s a whole group of people and companies utilizing the network that don’t pay into the fund in any meaningful way ... so they haven’t helped build out this network.
“Netflix is a huge amount of traffic that traverses our network. The last time we looked it was in the 35 percent range.”
She said changing that is sure to bring cries of “trying to tax the internet.” And in a way, it would be, she said.
“It’s not necessarily what people want to see, but in the same light, if you want these networks and you want these speeds, you have to somehow fund that. And who should fund it?”
State working with feds
Pai said that’s under consideration, but no decisions have been made.
“There’s a federal-state joint board ... that is considering that issue,” he said. “And we haven’t heard recently how the joint board might make a decision along those lines.”
Kansas is working with the federal government to expand broadband service, said Gov. Sam Brownback.
“We want to get as much broadband as we can to everywhere,” he said, noting that in addition to entertainment, it also brings critical business information and teleconference medical help to small towns.
“There’s been a particular federal push, which is good,” said Brownback, a former U.S. senator. “And then there’s state funds that go into a program that’s something like the federal program too. There have been efforts to retarget those state funds to get them more focused and available for rural broadband.”
Others complained about the red tape small phone companies have to go through to tap the federal funding to upgrade their systems and corporations.
“One thing that kind of concerns me a little bit is having the FCC dictate, or Washington dictate, the level of speed I’m required to have in order to maintain a certain level of funding,” said Archie Macias of Wheat State Telephone, which serves rural communities in Butler, Cowley, Chase and Lyon counties.
Macias said his company’s system, which has already installed fiber, can handle 25 megabit per second download speeds, but most of his customers only want to pay for 10.
“I’m not going to build a network that’s like having 500 channels on a TV that you’re going to watch 12 or 13,” he said.
He said Wheat State spent $92,500 last year on preparing and filing federal reports.
And there are about 35 rural phone companies in the state doing the same.
Pai said he heard that complaint loud and clear.
He said the regulations are “too complex and much too uncertain for these companies to be able to make a long-term investment decision for rural America.”
“What I’m going to keep focusing on is trying to simplify our own rules to make sure that the money we have allocated for this program is distributed in the most efficient, fairest way possible,” he said. “And to me that means ... let’s make sure that every dollar we dedicate for this program is dedicated to actually building out fiber, not on operating expenses like paperwork.”
These 10 Kansas counties, all rural, suffered the largest population declines from 2000 to 2015. Telephone and government officials say the trend is expected to worsen if internet service to rural areas isn’t improved.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau