Rural areas seek better ’Net access

By ANNE KAZMIERCZAK
Register Reporter

Register/Richard Luken
In place
Kendall Call of Call Sontruction, foreground, and Don Higinbotham of Don Higinbotham Painting position a sheet of plywood over the wooden skeleton of an overhanging roof at Iola Insurance, Inc., this morning at 204 S. State St. The project to replace weathered wooden shingles on the roof began this morning.

HUMBOLDT — The viability of southeast Kansas communities depends on their ability to attract and keep businesses and population, said Humboldt City Administrator Larry Tucker.
One key to helping the region grow, rather than decline further, is providing access to broadband, or high speed Internet. Broadband acts for digital information much as a multilane highway does for interstate commerce. It can carry far, far more than a gravel county road.
“This is an economic development issue,” Tucker said. “How can we attract new businesses and industry to the area if there isn’t Internet and they need high speed Internet?”
Tucker isn’t alone in his concern.
He has been meeting with federal, state and municipal government officials, plus representatives of hospitals, school districts, community colleges and businesses to determine how best to tap into $7.2 billion in government funds earmarked for increasing broadband accessibility across the country.
The money, part of the federal government’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, will be distributed based on population levels, Tucker said.
“We’ve identified 12-13 counties in southeast Kansas we think should be involved in this,” including Allen, Neosho, Woodson and Coffey, Tucker said.
“The U.S. Department of Commerce went across the state and talked to seven different regions,” Tucker said. Southeast Kansas was the second-to-last region identified, he said. Still, “We were told we’re the only region that has had a second meeting” about funding, Tucker said.
The initiative, called Connect Kansas, has two components, according to Joe Monaco of the Kansas Department of Commerce.
The ultimate objective is “to increase high speed Internet access in rural Kansas,” he said.
First, though, the commerce department is trying to “map the state’s current broadband capacity,” Monaco said.
“The idea is to do an assessment to determine where there is lack of access,” or where access is “too slow or too expensive that people don’t use it,” he said.
Kansans — with or without Internet — have been asked to help by logging on to www.connectkansas.org to contribute data to the mapping process. The data will be updated as it is submitted. Those with Internet reception may visit the site to test their connection speeds, Monaco said.

THE COST to hook up to available Internet service is prohibitive to many in southeast Kansas.
Currently, it costs $600 to hook up to satellite Internet, Tucker said. Available wireless costs almost a third that much. And those prices don’t include monthly service charges. That’s too much for many in today’s economy.
The new initiative can help, Tucker said. Grants may be available to help service providers offer low cost Internet to the public. “Once they broaden their area and bring in more people they can make their prices more competitive,” Tucker said of Internet service providers.
But the June 2009 edition of “Digital Communities,” a government technology periodical, said the old market model doesn’t apply — and won’t work — for broadband expansion. Rural communities are too small to have the client base necessary for a business to take on infrastructure development themselves.
“Rural Americans cannot wait for the market or competition to eventually build high speed networks to them. It just wouldn’t happen in a reasonable time,” Russell Parks, a Kentucky farmer, said in the magazine.
Instead, Digital Communities recommends that the government build the infrastructure, much as it did the interstate highway system after World War II, as a means to move the country to the front of the now-global economy.
Currently, the United States lags behind, numbering 22nd in global Internet connectivity, according to a survey by the International Telecommunications Union. Clearly 43 of every 100 homes in the United States lacked Internet access at all, the study showed. For those homes that are connected, Internet speeds are 10 times slower than South Korea, and slower still than other Asian and European countries.
Especially in rural areas, or if people own older computers, new programs and downloads built for high speed, broadband technology slow those machines to the point where “all people want to do on them is e-mail,” Tucker said.
Tucker believes in Allen County “40 to 50 percent of our citizens live outside the cities.” Inadequate access is the norm. For younger people who are more adept at technology, the laggardly service is unacceptable. They simply move on and move out of the area.
“This is critical for tomorrow’s economy” Tucker said of ensuring the region become fully wired.
Quoting a recent report he had read, Tucker mentioned how computer speed equates to economic power.
“Wall street executives who have access to supercomputers are getting ahead of other executives. They’re making more money.”

A THIRD reason broadband access lags in the region, Tucker said, is education.
“A lot of people don’t know how it works,” Tucker said. Older individuals may not have had much exposure to the Internet or personal computers. Some are scared to learn. Some don’t want to be bothered, he said.
The $7.2 billion in federal funds also can be tapped by educational institutions to bring the population up to speed on computer use.
Humboldt will begin offering free wifi — wireless Internet service — to its residents through an agreement with Iola’s Kwikom.
Kwikom will put its broadcasters on towers belonging to the city, and the city will be given free service for its parks, pool, city buildings and ball fields in return. Anyone with a laptop or near enough to receive a signal will just have to turn on their computer to be connected to the world.
Tucker is hopeful that continued meetings with the committee will produce similar arrangements for other towns.