Despite opposition from most of our Kansas congressional delegation, new federal dollars are coming to Kansas to expand broadband access.
President Joe Biden recently signed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, fulfilling a 2020 campaign promise. The bill had moderate bipartisan support, though every Republican in Congress from Kansas opposed it. The only Kansan to support it was Democratic Representative Sharice Davids.
Kansas will receive about $4 billion from the bill, including about $100 million to expand broadband infrastructure and money to help 669,000 working class Kansans get discounted internet through the Affordable Connectivity Benefit.
“Broadband” means high-speed internet access, specifically a minimum of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download speed. However, many tech experts argue that this definition is outdated, and suggest a 100 Mbps standard.
Broadband is an economic necessity. Businesses without it struggle to grow. Doctors without it struggle to serve patients. Kansans without it struggle through basic online tasks using unreliable and slow connections.
According to BroadbandNow, which tracks internet provider data, 173,000 Kansans lack home broadband service and 307,000 don’t have access to connections capable of broadband speed.
Rural communities generally struggle more to get broadband access. Basic capitalism explains why: it’s expensive and not necessarily profitable for businesses to build broadband infrastructure in smaller rural communities with lower population densities and often shrinking populations.
BroadbandNow data shows this divide in Kansas. For example, in urban Shawnee County, 95 percent of residents have access to 25 Mbps speed and 93 percent have 100 Mbps. Next door in rural Wabaunsee County, those figures are 65 percent and 55 percent respectively. In rural Doniphan County, that’s 89 percent and 12 percent.
The infrastructure bill has odd politics considering that several provisions — like broadband — disproportionately help Republican-leaning rural communities. Why would our elected Republicans oppose it?
Broadband got engulfed in the theater of Beltway partisan politics. In 2016, former President Donald Trump promised a $1 trillion infrastructure bill. Trump didn’t keep that promise. He then attacked the Biden bill and acted offended at Republicans who supported it.
Even if our Republican lawmakers secretly supported the infrastructure bill and broadband money for Kansas, politics prevented them from being open about it. Maybe they feared ending their political careers in a primary. But rural Kansans getting internet via dial up or a slow mobile hotspot with limited data probably don’t care which president’s signature helps bring them broadband.
Some of our Kansas Republican lawmakers criticized the cost of the infrastructure bill and its impact on debt. Maybe they forgot that Trump’s infrastructure plan cost about the same as Biden’s, or that Trump’s presidency added $7.8 trillion in national debt, per Federal Reserve data. Politics — not money — seems the real issue.
Some politicians claim they support broadband but oppose the infrastructure bill. Okay. Words won’t fix this problem. What legislation have they sponsored to fund broadband separately? And do they support the House Republican CONNECT Act in this Congress that would ban local governments from creating broadband networks to serve their local citizens?
Of all the parts of the infrastructure bill, broadband seems worth the cost, especially if it helps our struggling rural communities integrate into the modern economy and stop population loss. It’s unfortunate that Beltway politics kept average Kansans from getting the greater bipartisan support that they deserved here.
Patrick R. Miller is an associate professor of political science at the University of Kansas.