The federal government and the state of Kansas have engaged in multiple efforts over the past few decades to determine how to expand broadband access, particularly to rural America. The COVID-19 pandemic spurred the federal government and states to address broadband expansion by increasing funding for grant projects and focusing funds on increasing access to remote learning for children in K-12 schools and students at college universities. The pandemic also increased the need for quality broadband access due to the large shift to telehealth practice during the pandemic. This article provides a summary of some of the recent broadband expansion initiatives at the federal level, initiatives in Kansas, and recent legislative committee work on the topic.
On March 27, 2020, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The CARES Act created several funding sources for broadband expansion. The Distance Learning, Telemedicine, and Broadband Program, to be administered by the Rural Utilities Service within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was created to respond to the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) domestically and internationally for telemedicine and distance learning services in rural areas. The Program was allocated $25.0 million for grant awards. States, local government entities, federally-recognized tribes, nonprofits, and for-profit businesses can apply. The grant funds may be used for acquisition of eligible capital assets, such as broadband facilities; audio, video, and interactive video equipment; computer hardware, network components, and software; and inside wiring and similar infrastructure that further distance learning and telemedicine services.
Section 20004 of the CARES Act allows for short-term agreements or contracts with telecommunications providers to expand telemental health services for isolated veterans during the public health emergency. This provision allows the Secretary of Veterans Affairs (Veterans Secretary) to enter into short-term agreements or contracts with telecommunications companies to provide temporary, complimentary or subsidized, fixed, and mobile broadband services for the purposes of providing expanded mental health services to isolated veterans through telehealth or Veterans Affairs Video Connect during a public health emergency. This provision prioritizes veterans who live in unserved and underserved areas, veterans that reside in rural and highly rural areas, low-income veterans, and any other veterans that the Veterans Secretary considers to be a higher risk for suicide and mental health concerns during isolation periods due to a public health emergency.
House Sub. for SB 173 authorizes and directs the Secretary of Transportation (Transportation Secretary) to initiate a program called the Eisenhower Legacy Transportation Program (Program). The Program provides for the construction, improvement, reconstruction, and maintenance of the state highway system. As part of preservation plus projects, the bill authorizes adding technology elements in a preservation plus project. This includes laying broadband fiber or the conduit for broadband fiber.
The bill also authorizes the Transportation Secretary, working with the Office of Broadband Development within the Department of Commerce, to make grants for construction projects that expand and improve broadband service in Kansas. The bill requires grants made by the Transportation Secretary to reimburse grant recipients for up to 50 percent of actual construction costs in expanding and improving broadband service.
The bill also establishes the Broadband Infrastructure Construction Grant Fund. This fund is to be used to provide grants for the expansion of broadband service in Kansas. The bill requires $5.0 million from the State Highway Fund be transferred to the Broadband Infrastructure Construction Grant Fund on July 1, 2020, 2021, and 2022. On July 1, 2023, and each July 1 thereafter, through July 1, 2030, the annual required transfer is $10.0 million.
The CARES Act provided $150.0 billion in direct relief to states from the U.S. Department of the Treasury through the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF). Kansas was allocated $1.25 billion in CRF moneys. The Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas (SPARK) Taskforce is responsible for distributing the CRF moneys in Kansas. CRF moneys must be expended by December 30, 2020.
The SPARK Taskforce recommended, and the State Finance Council approved, the transfer of $50.0 million from the CRF to the Kansas Department of Commerce Office of Broadband Initiatives for Connectivity Emergency Response Grant (CERG) funds. Governor Kelly created the Office of Broadband Initiatives through Executive Order No. 20-67 to oversee the CERG application process and distribute funds. Internet service providers (ISPs), local governments, nonprofits, and other private entities are eligible to apply for the grants.
For purposes of the grant applications, underserved areas are defined as having Internet speeds lower than 25 megabits per second (download) and 3 megabits per second (upload) [25/3 Mbps]. For areas that are considered served with adequate broadband, an entity could submit an application demonstrating a need. Applicants were required to provide a local match. The state share of the proposed project may not exceed $10.0 million. Factors considered when evaluating proposals included level of demonstrated need related to the COVID-19 pandemic, project readiness, broad community support, and geographic dispersion.
The State Finance Council also approved $10.0 million from the CRF to the Department of Commerce for a Provider Partnership Support program that would use existing ISP programs to provide broadband access to low-income households. ISPs would determine household eligibility, which is typically based on qualification for the National School Lunch Program and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In exchange for state funding support in fiscal year (FY) 2020, ISPs would provide continued support using existing funds for 6 to 12 months in FY 2021.
Statewide Broadband Expansion Task Force (2018)
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Legislature passed Senate Sub. for HB 2701 (2018), which created the Statewide Broadband Expansion Task Force (Task Force).
The Task Force submitted a progress report to the Legislature in January 2019. At the March 28, 2019, meeting, the Task Force established three subcommittees to address the various aspects of its charge. The three subcommittees were Mapping and Funding, Deployment, and Oversight and Projected Timeline. Each subcommittee met twice and prepared a report to the Task Force on its activities and recommendations. The Task Force submitted a final report to the Legislature in January 2020. In its final report, the Task Force recommended to the Legislature, among other things:
- Create a broadband policy statement goal that considers broadband as not only reliable internet access, but as a tool for attracting and promoting economic development, public safety, educational opportunities, health care, and agriculture;
- Establish a goal to ensure every Kansan has access to broadband services, and access should be at a speed of, at a minimum, 25/3 Mbps with scalable technology; and
- Request funding to maintain the current Kansas Broadband Map and request Connected Nation create a broadband availability map that includes projects that have been awarded in Connect America Fund—Phase II, Alternative Connect America Cost Model-Phase I and II, and other grant funding for broadband that has been deployed or is planned for development.
On July 31, 2019, Connected Nation, a nonprofit organization that helps address broadband and digital technology gaps, in partnership with the Governor’s Office, published a statewide broadband map of wire-line and wireless coverage: https://connectednation.org/kansas/interactivemap. The map was funded by a $300,000 grant in 2018 and was created by collecting data in collaboration with Kansas broadband service providers.
Marisa Bayless, Research Analyst
James Fisher, Managing IT Analyst
Eric Adell, Fiscal Analyst