The Rural Broadband Challenge


fiber lines

 

This article was originally published by The Kansas City Star “For small-town Johnson County, internet service isn’t a given” 4/02/19

Something was very wrong in De Soto, and Kevin Honomichl knew it. Then came the incident that drove the point home.

His son was collaborating with classmates on a team project, but the kids couldn’t meet just anywhere in De Soto. So Honomichl hauled the boy to McDonald’s, one place in town where everyone could tap into the internet at once.

Honomichl lives south of Kansas 10, an area of De Soto that has lacked land-based internet service of any kind. Businesses simply haven’t found it profitable to serve that part of town.

Internet options are better in other parts of town, officials said, but haven’t reached the level that families and businesses demand.

“Broadband has achieved a point of being critical infrastructure, just like water, just like sewer, just like electricity,” said Honomichl, whose passion for the issue prompted him to run successfully for the City Council.

“We’re reaching a point where communities with robust broadband access — to essentially everybody — are communities that are going to thrive economically.”

De Soto isn’t the only outlying community in Johnson County to face this difficulty. Spring Hill and Gardner, too, are tackling the issue.

“Throughout our community, there are households without the option of a land-based broadband service,” said Melanie Landis, assistant city administrator in Spring Hill. “We understand that some residents use cellular hotspots, which, in many cases, does not provide adequate speed to run a small business, work from home or take online classes.”

De Soto, though, is well on its way to rectifying its deficiency. After seeking proposals from the private sector, the City Council agreed last fall to pay $500,000 to a Baldwin City company, RG Fiber, to bring high-speed internet service to the city.

“We realized that if we’re going to attract younger families and smaller businesses, or larger businesses, we need to have a data infrastructure that’s 21st century,” said City Administrator Mike Brungardt. “And we’re just 15 years behind everywhere else.”

The city asked for 1-gigabit service, but with new technology, RG Fiber says it will provide 10-gig capacity to De Soto.

“They’ll be, as far as I know, the fastest city in the region,” said Mike Bosch, founder and CEO of RG Fiber.

AFFORDABLE SOLUTION FOR SMALL-TOWN DIEHARDS

Mike Bosch didn’t set out be a fiber internet provider.

Back in 2013, he was running a Baldwin City software company that saw a surge in business after Reuters wrote about him and other young entrepreneurs who chose to stay in rural America. Before long, though, Bosch encountered a huge impediment.

“We outgrew the internet,” he said.

Google Fiber was promising 1-gigabit internet service in Kansas City, but other Baldwin City business owners were facing the same limitations he was. They weren’t sure their companies could continue to grow.

Bosch set out to find a solution, and RG Fiber was born with a mission to bring affordable broadband to Baldwin City and other small towns.

He does it with a software-based technology that streamlines operations. Traditional providers must reach into hardware every time a change is made, Bosch said, but “we’re able to control and monitor and manage our network from the cloud.”

Bosch thinks a passion for smaller communities — reflected in reduced rates for families in need and the free service he will provide in parks and other city facilities — helped RG Fiber win De Soto’s business.

“We’re small-town diehards,” he said. “Yes, we’re geeks. We love the technology, but for us, it’s really all about community.

ROOT OF THE PROBLEM

Brungardt blames much of the problem with the struggle for internet providers on a 2006 Kansas law that took away the ability of cities to forge franchise agreements with cable and video service companies. The statute called for statewide agreements instead, leaving localities with little leverage to demand more and better service.

“We’re just hamstrung by it,” he said.

The consequences are felt most acutely south of K-10.

“We have families moving out there that buy a 300-, 400-, 500-thousand-dollar house, not dreaming that they can’t get internet service,” Brungardt said.

Honomichl’s greatest concern was for students, who use the internet to do research, complete and submit homework and watch recorded lectures from home.

“It’s hard as a kid to do your homework on a phone, and a lot of kids are doing that,” he said.

He and his neighbors are coping in a variety of ways. One neighbor, he said, put a 25-foot tower on top of his house for an antenna to provide what amounts to low-capacity wireless internet.

Another neighbor, who works from home, struggles with data caps. She acquired three hotspots and switches from one device to the next each time she reaches the limit.

“And then you hope you’re at the end of the month and the cycle starts over again,” Honomichl said.

INCENTIVES FOR SERVICES

Honomichl, president of the BHC Rhodes civil engineering firm, served on a city task force that researched the issue. De Soto officials didn’t want to go into the broadband business, but viewed a financial incentive as something akin to the tax breaks frequently offered to lure factories or offices to a community.

When De Soto issued a request for proposals last year, it asked what kind of incentive a company would need to bring competitively priced, 1-gig service to the unserved area, as well as the best offer for serving the entire town.

From three responses, it chose RG Fiber.

The company is now installing underground conduits for the area. Each conduit contains seven smaller conduits — three for RG Fiber and four empty ones donated to the city. De Soto can use those to bring competitors to the market, and one local firm, Zoom Fiber, has jumped in.

The city paid RG Fiber an initial $300,000 in December, giving the company a year to:

▪ Offer broadband throughout the unserved area, with the intent to cover the whole city within two years.

▪ Begin providing 20 years of free broadband to several city facilities plus free public WiFi to the downtown area, two city parks and other gathering spots.

And to help bridge the digital divide, the company has agreed to offer reduced rates to families of public school students who qualify for free and reduced lunch.

“We are encouraged and excited about any progress toward bringing better connectivity options for our patrons and most importantly, our students,” said Brandon Riffel, director of technology for De Soto School District. “In some cases where the market won’t support active competition from traditional internet service providers, a partnership such as this one is the only viable solution.”

The district also is applying for a Sprint program that provides home internet access to low-income students.

IDEA CATCHES ON

Other communities are traveling a similar path.

Gardner surveyed its residents last April and found that 58 percent were dissatisfied with their internet service. Eighty-four percent were interested in fiber internet, and just over 70 percent said Gardner should pursue a city-owned fiber network.

At least half of the respondents were willing to pay something up front, and some were OK with $1,000 or more. Most hoped to keep their monthly bills under $60.

The next step is to decide whether the city should get involved.

“Gardner is exploring the idea of a city-owned fiber network,” said spokeswoman Daneeka Marshall-Oquendo.

In Spring Hill, a Broadband Task Force began work in 2017 and released its recommendations early last year. Among other things, the group suggested the city consider a small property tax increase to fund a fiber initiative.

Meanwhile, for students needing to use the internet, the city has opened a study hall area from 3 to 7 p.m. daily at the Civic Center.

“However, we firmly believe those families should have internet access at least available to their home,” said Landis, the assistant city administrator. “Many businesses … gain access to the service they need through more expensive, less reliable means.”

Around May 1, officials hope to issue a “request for information,” announcing that Spring Hill is looking for partners to bring reliable, affordable high-speed internet to the city.

“We understand there are a variety of ways it can be accomplished,” Landis said, “and we are looking for the right company to partner with for the most creative and timely approach.”

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