By State Representative Bill Sutton
While going door-to-door in the local elections this year, one topic that came up more often than I expected was broadband internet access… and for good reason. Broadband access is what allows our local businesses to promote their products to eager consumers, our farmers to receive up-to-date weather information for crops, our children to learn outside of school to better prepare them for life afterwards, and our hospitals to provide the best care possible to patients. In Gardner it’s easy to take the Internet for granted. We don’t spend our days thinking about what life would be like without having Internet access. But for many in Kansas the reality is not the same.
Almost 32 percent of our population, or just over 900,000 people, live in rural areas of Kansas with broadband access ranging from unreliable and inadequate to nonexistent. That statistic gets even worse when you consider that 46 out of 52 million acres in Kansas are farmland.
What does this mean? It means that Kansas farmers can’t compete with the market because they can’t access weather patterns or observe aerial views of their crops. It means that more than 100,000 students go home every day unable to do research for their homework and learn at a faster pace. It means that 64 percent of our hospitals are put at a disadvantage for patient care and telemedicine is rendered nonexistent. And it means that 52 percent of our population working in small businesses—the backbone of the American economy—can’t effectively advertise their business to a broader market for a better profit.
Fortunately, there are solutions that don’t involve sitting on our hands until Google Fiber decides to move in to Gardner. One that I’ve found, Connect Americans Now is a coalition working to end the rural digital gap, is purposed toward finding cost-effective ways of extending broadband access to people living in rural communities. Solving problems cost-effectively, that’s what I try to do every day!
The method of this new solution utilizes an unused part of the television spectrum called “white space”, which would be able to send high-speed Internet several miles through buildings and terrain without disrupting broadcast channels. TV “white spaces” use existing infrastructure, making this technology much less expensive than other options.
Leading tech companies, such as Microsoft, are willing to invest, but this is one of the rare situations in which the public sector can actually help the private sector. In order to connect with rural communities, we need the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to reserve three channels under 700 MHz of unlicensed TV white space in all markets, and improve its data collection in order to supply investors with accurate information so that they can prioritize resources for communities in need.
We need Ajit Pai, chairman of the FCC, to remember the rural state he calls home and work to close the digital divide. Every farmer deserves to be given the tools to succeed in a world increasingly reliant on technology. Every student deserves the chance to learn everything they can and as fast as they want. And every small business owner deserves the ability to promote their business beyond their community and learn from their competitors.