Gov. Laura Kelly announced Thursday a new office in the Kansas Department of Commerce designed to lead a more targeted effort to boost broadband in communities across the state.
Kelly signed an executive order creating the Office of Broadband Development, a more expansive entity that will be charged with reporting annually on connectivity challenges and making policy recommendations to lawmakers.
The new office will "have teeth," Kelly said, including more funding and staffing than what is currently allocated. It will be headed by Stanley Adams, already the state’s top broadband official.
Internet access has been a top priority for state officials in recent years, but Kelly said there was a lack of coordinated strategy before her administration took charge.
"Leaders in Kansas have repeatedly claimed that expanding broadband access was at the top of the to-do list," Kelly said at a Statehouse news conference. "But resistance to coordinate statewide strategy or to commit the necessary funding has failed to bring high-speed internet to the communities that need it most."
When the COVID-19 pandemic prompted more people to work, learn and see physicians from home, significant chunks of the state were left behind, she said.
"Our failure to invest put our rural and vulnerable communities at a stark disadvantage," she said.
State officials have said that anywhere from 20% to 30% of the state’s rural population lacks access to basic broadband service, which the Federal Communications Commission defines as a 25 megabits per second download speed and a 3 mbps upload speed.
Lt. Gov. Lynn Rogers said this can significantly affect economic development in rural areas, pointing to a 1,200-person town that had two businesses pass it over because of a lack of internet access.
"This is really unacceptable," Rogers said. "Our rural communities deserve support. They deserve an equal chance to succeed as their friends and neighbors do in urban communities."
The creation of the new office comes alongside the state doling out $50 million in grants, bankrolled by federal COVID-19 aid, to support broadband deployment in underserved areas.
A separate $10 million pot of money has been set aside for ensuring low-income residents have internet access.
Transportation Secretary Julie Lorenz, who also heads the panel charged with distributing the federal funding, said the approved programs will do everything from connecting a proposed hospital in Sumner County to expanding telemedicine in Dickinson County.
Projects also included boosting internet access in northern Shawnee County, better connecting Garden City Regional Airport and a statewide grant for the University of Kansas Health System to improve telemedicine offerings, among others.
"These are game-changing projects for Kansans both today and into the future," Lorenz said.
While there were concerns about projects being completed by the Dec. 30 deadline for federal funds to be spent, Kelly emphasized that speed was a key criteria for selecting which projects would get a grant.
"The idea that they're sort of shovel ready in the digital sense was important," she said. "And, clearly, whether it was a rural community or inner city, there was a demonstrated need to get this done in an expeditious way."
Challenges still remain, stakeholders acknowledge.
The state lacks a comprehensive map outlining where coverage gaps exist, something Kelly said would be a top priority for the new office.
And it was broadly agreed that more funds would need to be spent to truly offer high-quality internet statewide.
Still, Commerce Secretary David Toland said that Thursday’s announcement was a real statement of intent by state officials to tackle the problem.
"We've been talking about this for a long time, and the time for talk is over," Toland said. "We know what to do and now we're going to get it done."