As Master of the Kansas State Grange, I frequently travel across the state and see that communities with access to quality internet service are seeing remarkable benefits. It’s happening in our fields, our ranches and our communities, boosting our quality of life and especially the local economy.
Internet-connected technologies are transforming the agriculture industry, a major driver of the Kansas state economy. Farmers and ranchers are growing crops and feeding their cattle with more success and at less cost. Ranchers in little places like Allen, about 50 miles southwest of Topeka, are using wireless transmitters and the internet to monitor their cattle in-take. This helps operators recognize the highest quality beef for buyers.
Kansas’ 56,000 small businesses also benefit from such technological advancements. With a high-speed internet connection, innovators across the state can advertise and sell their services nationally while remaining in Kansas. Business owners can boost profits and productivity, managing their goods and services on-the-go, and coordinating with suppliers across the country or even across the world.
These and thousands of other internet advances are doing more than just making Kansas commerce run more effectively. More importantly, they help level the playing field between our smaller towns and larger urban areas.
Unfortunately, as good as this news is, there is still work to be done. More than 200,000 Kansans in rural areas still cannot get high-speed internet service at home. That’s more than the entire population of Shawnee County, the third largest county in the state. Companies in Kansas are actively working to address this challenge, but much work remains in the realm of connectivity.
When residents cannot get adequate internet service, the entire community feels the burden. High school students cannot study effectively. Healthcare is less accessible. Farmers and ranchers can’t use new technologies that create higher crop yields with less use of water, seed and fertilizer. Businesses have limited opportunities to grow and connect with larger markets.
The results are dismaying. Populations stagnate. Students go off to college and don’t return home. Fewer people pay local taxes which makes funding schools and hospitals more difficult. Worse, the trend seems to be accelerating. According to a Wichita State University report this April, only 17 Kansas counties (17 out of 104) have grown during this decade, which has widened the gap between rural and urban areas.
Kansas ranks only 42nd out of 50 states for its economic growth by the U.S. News & World Report. This statistic is weighed down not only by our state’s waning population, but by its overall GDP and job growth, despite a low unemployment rate.
Despite the recent progress that has been made to bridge the digital divide, the journey to statewide broadband accessibility in Kansas is far from finished. By expanding high-speed internet service, especially to those 200,000 Kansans most in need, all communities will have a fair shot at harnessing the benefits that accompany this.
The Federal government has a key role in this and fortunately the person leading the Trump Administration’s broadband expansion has deep Kansas roots. He is Ajit Pai and he grew up in Parsons.
During his brief tenure as head of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Pai has racked up a string of successes to improve rural broadband. Last December, he rolled back federal rules regulating online “neutrality” would have significantly undercutrural internet expansion and wiped out billions in investment nationwide.
Pai was concerned that by “imposing those heavy-handed economic regulations on internet service providers big and small, we could end up disincentivizing companies from wanting to build out internet access to a lot of parts of the country, in low-income, urban and rural areas.”
The impact of this and other changes will go well beyond the big cities of Wichita and Topeka. It will be felt by thousands of Kansas farmers who will use broadband for precision farming and real-time commodity pricing. It will also be felt by small business owners seeking to expand their businesses beyond their brick and mortar confines.
Kansas is filled with vibrant communities and some of the greatest people in the country. But the 21st century presents challenges to us all. For the growth of our economy and ultimately for the good of the state, government at all levels must continue to actively encourage the deployment of accessible high-speed internet access.
About the author: Roger Bostwick is a third generation Granger from Kansas. Roger currently serves as the Master of Kansas State Grange. He served as the Assistant Steward for the National Grange from 2007 to 2013. Roger works for the Deluxe Corporation in Lenexa, Kansas and has over 35 years of service. He also enjoys working on the farm he and his wife named “Happy Hollow Farm.’