Access to high-speed internet isn’t a luxury in rural Kansas. It’s a necessity. Without access to high-quality internet connections, communities, businesses, farmers and families are at a competitive disadvantage.
That was made glaringly obvious during the pandemic, when so many families were working and schooling from home on spotty Wi-Fi. Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly took a step forward in addressing this by establishing the Office of Broadband Development in the Department of Commerce in 2020. But the journey to bridging the digital divide also takes public-private partnerships.
And one such partnership brought Kelly; Mike Beam, Kansas secretary of agriculture; and Beth Ford, Land O’Lakes Inc. president and CEO, along with other dignitaries, to the small western Kansas town of Spearville July 19 for a big announcement.
“When it comes to expanding broadband, we all know that public-private partnerships are key — especially in our rural areas,” Kelly says. The American Connection Corps, a fellowship program led by Land O’Lakes and Lead For America, is one such program.
The goal of the American Connection Corps is to place ACC fellows in their home communities across the nation, where they can use their education and skills to focus on closing the digital divide and building the next generation of leaders. Fellowship placements typically last two years.
Ford says Land O’Lakes has been a staunch advocate of broadband investment, because the farmer-owned cooperative sees how critical it is to the vitality of rural communities.
“This is a basic everyday necessity in the digital world in which we all operate,” she says. “And I tell people this isn’t about streaming Netflix. This is a critical, critical infrastructure investment that 14.5 million Americans lack today.” In Kansas, 173,000 people lack access to wired internet in their homes, she says. The Federal Communications Commission reports that 97% of Americans in urban settings have access to high-speed fixed broadband, but just 65% in rural communities have the same access.
“There’s no doubt that we have missed out on a lot of business opportunities, you know — people who were not able to start up their business in their old hometown and had to go someplace else where there was much greater connectivity — so this is huge,” Kelly says. “This will keep those dollars here in our state.”
And what’s more troubling is that Kansas farmers who are great stewards of the land lack access to broadband that can set the stage for their future success, Ford adds. Considering that much of Kansas agricultural production is exported, broadband is critical to taking full advantage of Kansas’ competitive advantages in export markets, and thus accelerating economic prosperity in the state, Ford adds.
“We’re not waiting for someone else to solve the problem; that’s not what Kansans do,” Ford says. “That’s not what cooperatives do. We take action right away.”
Plan of action
Ford explains that providing access to the internet is just the critical first step, but it’s only useful when individuals know how to leverage the technology into economic opportunities for their farms, their businesses and their families.
“That’s why we’ve launched a new program for leaders, the American Connection Corps,” she says. “It’s a boots-on-the-ground effort to boost broadband connectivity and digital inclusion.” Ford says the effort puts fellows in communities who can take up the baton and lead communities across the digital divide.
And that’s where Lead for America comes in. The program was co-founded by Dodge City native Joe Nail, who saw talented young people leaving their rural communities for opportunities in large urban areas —taking their leadership and skills with them.
“Lead For America is on a mission to build a generation of civic leaders dedicated to tackling the toughest challenges facing the communities they call home — particularly in places like my own home state of Kansas, where young people often leave and never return,” Nail says. Combining the human capital of eager, talented young leaders who want to use those talents for the good of their hometowns with the financial opportunities a two-year fellowship provides is one way to close the digital divide and accelerate connectivity.
American Connection Corps fellows spend their two-year paid fellowships coordinating with local partners to access federal and state resources for broadband access, and delivering digital literacy to marginalized community members, Ford says.
“It’s our intention that this program will both grow significantly and work in concert with legislators at both state and federal levels to identify a scalable, successful model for community development,” Ford says.
Three American Connection Corps fellows were announced and will be placed in Kansas to increase broadband access and digital literacy in the state:
1. Amalia Murguia. Murguia will work in the Office of Economic Development for Wabaunsee County government to identify broadband shortfalls and programs that can fill those gaps. She’ll also develop initiatives to improve digital literacy.
2. Jose Trejo. Trejo will work with the newly formed non-profit Empower Evergreen, which serves Wichita’s Hispanic community. Trejo will identify ways to streamline productivity for Hispanic-owned businesses using broadband, and improve access to technology for Hispanic families.
3. Christianna Mershon. Mershon will work with Newman University’s Division of Student Affairs in Wichita to use broadband to increase campus and community involvement. Her goal is to increase student retention rates and identify barriers that limit rural students’ access to internet.
“We are very appreciative that Land O’Lakes picked Kansas to be one of the first states to roll out the American Connection Corps program,” Beam says. “Kansas is one of the top five states in total market value production.” Much of that comes from the southwest quadrant of the state, which not only is a major economic engine for Kansas, but also for the whole country, he says.
“Access to the internet can close the equity gap between communities and bridge the urban-rural divide,” Kelly says. From improving access to telehealth, to virtual schooling, to increasing agricultural efficiency, broadband access is critical to the future of Kansas, she says.
Progress in broadband so far
Since 2020, Kelly’s administration has pulled together public and private partners with the Legislature and state agencies to move the state forward in the broadband connectivity issue. She shared some highlights:
• Office of Broadband Development. In 2020, Kelly created the office in the Department of Commerce to ramp up broadband accessibility, affordability and reliability.
• Broadband deployment dollars. Kelly included $85 million for broadband deployment in the recent landmark bipartisan transportation program — the first time in history that state general funds were dedicated to expanding high-speed internet access.
• Spark Task Force. The Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas Taskforce allocated nearly $50 million in Connectivity Emergency Response Grants, along with 25 Adoption Grants that totaled $8 million.
• Broadband Acceleration Grants. In March the state allocated $5 million in grants for broadband infrastructure improvements that were matched by each applicant at 50%, for a total $10 million investment statewide.