Tom Parker looks at his chicken, Henrietta, outside his house Jan. 24 in Earlton, Kansas, where internet access is spotty. The town is located several miles south of Chanute, Kansas, in the southeast area of the state. (Caleb Oswell/The Beacon)

For Tom Parker, the town of Earlton, located about 8 miles south of Chanute in southeast Kansas, is an internet desert — the connection is slow when running and prone to disconnection. It cuts out every time a train runs over a set of nearby railroad tracks. 

Even placing online orders is a herculean task for Parker and his wife, Beth — at times the internet will cut out halfway through. 

Since the pandemic began, the Parkers’ unreliable internet has cut them off from the more connected world. At ages 71 and 68, respectively, Parker and his wife have spent most of their time at home. Their fixed wireless internet, which sends a signal from an access point like a tower to a receiver installed on the side of their home, has made connecting with relatives difficult, as Zoom will often freeze or disconnect. 

“It makes it tough when you can’t go anywhere or you shouldn’t go anywhere,” Parker said. “And you can’t really talk to anybody.”

Poor internet service was always a problem for the Earlton couple — and it’s become even more pronounced during the pandemic. As families became more reliant on their home internet, addressing broadband and internet access has become a priority for Kansas, where 173,000 people, about 6% of the state, lack any wired broadband services at their home and 307,000 lack broadband that reaches the minimum speeds set by the Federal Communications Commission, according to BroadbandNow, a website providing data on internet service providers offered in a given area. 

Internet access is particularly a problem in rural parts of Kansas like Earlton; on the national level, about 14.5 million people living in rural parts of the U.S. lack access to broadband. 

To address this digital divide, Kansas allocated $60 million of its coronavirus relief funds, which was provided to the state as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act passed in April, to improve broadband access across the state through grant programs. 

“The fact is there are a lot of places where they either don’t have it, or what they have is not adequate,” said Stanley Adams, director of the Kansas Commerce Department’s Office of Broadband Development.

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Parker and his wife, however, are not seeing any improvements in their internet from these funds. Nearby, the city of Chanute received funding to improve wireless internet access, but the service does not reach Earlton

Adams said the $60 million is dedicated to improving broadband connectivity in areas like telehealth, remote learning and remote work. 

The divide in Kansas between those with internet and those without showed itself immediately through remote work and education, Adams said, with many workers and students struggling to keep up because of poor household internet. 

“Those pockets where there was not service, that became a critical issue for those folks, immediately,” Adams said. “It was no longer a theoretical issue — it was a dramatically important issue.”

Breaking down the grants

The $60 million to expand broadband was split into two programs: the Connectivity Emergency Response Grant program and the Broadband Partnership Adoption Grant program

When Kansas-based internet service provider IdeaTek heard about the grant programs, the team looked to find the biggest gaps in coverage, the places without internet.

“We tend to go into markets that tend to be unserved or underserved,” said Jade Piros de Carvalho, director of industry and community relations at IdeaTek. “When we heard about this opportunity, we got out the FCC maps and some other mapping overlays that we knew were areas that weren’t served.” 

The Connectivity Emergency Response Grant program awarded grants to fund 67 broadband projects from 40 different providers, including IdeaTek, to expand broadband infrastructure in communities that needed broadband connectivity. The Broadband Partnership Adoption program received $10 million and was established to help low-income households pay for internet service and leverage existing digital infrastructure to improve access. 

All projects also had to be completed by Dec. 30, 2020; Adams said most projects met that goal, although a new round of COVID-19 relief passed in December extended that deadline to the end of 2021.

IdeaTek received $13,712,661 in emergency response grants to fund four projects providing fiber internet service to underserved areas across southwest Kansas and south-central Kansas. IdeaTek used a fiber-to-the-premises solution, where fiber-optic lines run from an internet service provider directly to a person’s home.

IdeaTek also received funding from the partnership adoption program to bring wireless hotspots to communities, nursing homes and state parks and provide free internet service to qualifying low-income households at least through the end of this year.

IdeaTek’s projects targeted areas that had among the lowest broadband coverage rates in the state, like Meade County in southwest Kansas, where only 0.1% of residents have broadband, the lowest in the state. 

“Those who choose to live rural shouldn’t have to live with less and shouldn’t have to settle for a lower quality of life than those in their urban counterparts,” Piros de Carvalho said.

By the end of 2020, IdeaTek built over 3,000 miles of fiber to connect more than 7,000 Kansans who previously didn’t have internet, Piros de Carvalho said. She added that it was like making 10 years’ worth of progress in just a few months.

Other states prioritizing broadband

Kansas was not the only state to allocate some of its coronavirus funds to the digital divide. 

In neighboring Missouri, $50 million was divided among different departments to address broadband issues and improve internet access in areas ranging from telemedicine to remote learning. 

Of that funding, $20 million of Missouri’s funding led to the creation of a reimbursement program to help service providers expand broadband to households with students or members of vulnerable populations. Another $20 million went to local school districts and higher education to help students facing digital barriers. The other $10 million was divided among smaller programs to assist libraries and improve telehealth.

Similarly, Mississippi established the Electric Cooperatives Broadband COVID-19 Act, which used $75 million for emergency broadband grants. New Hampshire created a similar emergency broadband program to support improving digital connections for families, students and businesses. 

Beyond funding infrastructure projects, Vermont is allocating $17.4 million to the COVID Response Accelerated Broadband Connectivity Program, which also provides financial assistance to extend service lines to unserved streets and neighborhoods. 

Tennessee’s Emergency Broadband Fund also supports the building of public Wi-Fi access points. 

Many states also established offices dedicated to broadband and internet access for the first time. In Kansas, Gov. Laura Kelly signed an executive order in October creating the Office of Broadband Development. The department, led by Adams, is dedicated to developing a strategy to improve broadband across the state. 

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‘An absolute, critical, essential tool’

For Parker and his wife, slow internet service has been an obstacle to receiving essential services like their unemployment benefits. Without adequate internet, they filed for unemployment over the phone after losing their jobs last spring. They call the Kansas Department of Labor on a daily basis to ask about their claim, but often with no luck — an issue other Kansans have shared with The Beacon.

“You’d get halfway through, then you’re down and then you try to get back on again,” Parker said. “And then something else is going on. It’s not reliable.”

Although tasks like paying bills and filling out state forms are becoming more available online, the Parkers’ slow and unreliable internet makes it difficult or nearly impossible to even use those online services at all. 

Tom Parker displays his cell phone in Chanute, Kansas. Parker lives a few miles south of Chanute in Earlton, Kansas, a town that receives poor internet service in southeast Kansas. (Caleb Oswell/The Beacon)

About 14.5 million people live in rural areas without access to broadband service at the FCC’s minimum internet speeds of 25 megabits per second — that’s about 4% of the total U.S. population. But that doesn’t mean 25 Mbps is necessarily fast enough to serve everyone’s needs. According to Broadband Now, speeds of 100 Mbps or more are considered “average” to “fast” enough to support three or more. Internet speed over 100 Mbps is harder to find in rural Kansas; in several counties on Kansas’ western border, less than 10% of households have broadband reaching those speeds.

The lack of fast internet in rural areas is primarily a problem of infrastructure, Adams said. Major service providers choose not to build internet lines in areas with smaller populations because it’s too expensive. 

But people like Parker and his wife still need improved internet access, especially as more basic necessities shift online.  

“Today, every facet of our lives is impacted by our ability to get on the internet,” Adams said. “So it’s evolved from what, at one point, was a luxury, to now an absolute, critical, essential tool for every day.”  

In rural Earlton, the Parkers are among the 15.6% of residents with only one provider offering broadband coverage; some census blocks currently have zero providers offering broadband, according to Broadband Now. This puts Earlton behind the rest of Neosho County, where nearly 72% of residents have access to broadband. 

There are providers offering internet service nearby, but their services don’t reach the Parker household. A satellite option is too expensive and doesn’t offer enough bandwidth, Parker said. Even the cellphone service at his house is spotty — he said he can get better connection at the nearby RV park in Chanute. 

“It’s all slow, doesn’t matter,” he said. “If I’m on my cell phone, the connection is so poor, it’s only one bar.”

Adams said it was important to ensure that projects expanding access in rural Kansas were providing long-term solutions instead of short-term stopgaps that only addressed pandemic-specific problems.

Meanwhile, Parker said he’s tried searching for a faster internet option. But there are none. 

“It’s almost not worth having,” he said. “I mean, it’s worth having, but it’s such an aggravation.”

This story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.

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