••• Tax & Spending •••

Making the most of Kansas’s federal broadband funds

Kansas is receiving $451.7 million from the federal government as part of the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program. The $42.45 billion in the program is part of the gigantic federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Different state offices including the Kansas Office of Broadband Development now in the driver’s seat with these funds – and need to uphold transparency and efficiency if this money is going to really make a difference for underserved communities.

A 2020 FCC commission analyzing 5G deployment areas determined that 15 percent of Kansas’s population over 69,630 square miles of the state (85 percent of the state!) would be in areas of interest for broadband infrastructure development. *Insert Picture* That’s a lot of ground to cover over hundreds of different local government entities. Historically, largescale internet grants have been highly prone to waste because of the sheer scale of deployment and responsibility of hundreds of organizations to cooperate. Since 1997, the Kansas Universal Service Fund has funneled $1.2 billion into landline providers, but has failed to produce a meaningful difference since the money has gone to outdated projects that are limited in scope. During the Great Recession, the federal Rural Utilities Service spent $3 billion to develop rural infrastructure, yet 40% of their approved projects were never initiated, with half of those original projects never using all of the funds they were granted. Think “shovel ready” projects that never came to pass a decade and a half ago.

The reason why this money is often wasted is because of poor oversight ranging from fund recipients double dipping across broadband funds to communities not investing in the best service possible. Some broadband recipients invest in DSL and Cable, which lose 94% of their signal over 320 feet of cable. Compare that to fiber, which only loses 3%, and the right choice – at least technologically – becomes clearer. Local communities have avoided fiber and broadband installation due to its higher cost – which has dropped by 44.6% while its speed has increased by 127.7% since 2015.  Let’s be clear, this isn’t to say the federal broadband dollars should have been allocated but since they are let’s at least use the funds as wisely as possible.

An idea for how the state can enforce transparency is through annual reporting of community-level updates. Historically, the FCC’s maps have also long been inaccurate. This is largely because of the reliance on internet service providers who overestimate their own coverage as a selling point – at the expense of misdirecting funds away from locations that need it. Because of this, the FCC has a process by which state and local governments can challenge the map accuracy. Over this last year, the FCC received 1.1 million complaints. The state should keep track of inaccuracies it encounters and make rolling challenges to the FCC so as to limit puffery in advertising.

In general, the state should be strict on what projects it funds with a keen eye for fiber-optic infrastructure. Permitting and regulatory reform should be on the mind as well in case construction encounters outdated and burdensome policies that make it harder to build quickly and cheaply. Indeed, some of the funds could be re-tasked for concierge-type services to streamline permitting.

There’s an assortment of different strategies state and local authorities could pursue to make sure this money is well spent. This could see a lot of momentum in reforming the Kansas Department of Transportation’s Right of Way policies, which create a form of a franchise agreement between fiber companies who want to install infrastructure near public works, mainly highways. KDOT could speed up its approval process for these projects to promote development. Broadband developers frequently cite petty partisan squabbles holding up broadband deployment.

At the same time, local governments could reduce barriers to deployment to further facilitate installations. One simple way is by keeping pole attachment rates accessible and affordable for development. Companies must pay a fee for space on a utility’s telephone poles, so it represents a cost to internet companies expanding connections. Kansas should adopt legislation similar to that proposed in our neighbors Oklahoma and Nebraska to moderate pole attachment rates. However, Kansas should not try to impose caps for fear of negatively impacting the natural processes of the market.

Governments should take advantage of public-private partnerships as well. Microsoft’s commercial partnerships with the Kansas providers Nextlink and Wisper have helped expand access to 1 million people in Kansas and its neighboring Midwest states.  Some electric co-operatives have also partnered with broadband companies to combine their expansion plans.

Wi-Fi contributes $500 billion to the US economy annually, with broadband being at the forefront of economic development. Being connected online is vital to work, social life, and purchasing goods and services. To ensure that the millions of federal dollars and the broadband programs they support make their way to connect the households of the Kansans that need it, state and local governments need to uphold transparency and take an innovative approach to deployment to minimize waste.