A grant announcement made Thursday afternoon brings new meaning to the phrase “high-speed internet.”
Buhler-based IdeaTek will receive $13.71 million from four Connectivity Emergency Response Grants (CERG) awarded by the state in response to the novel coronavirus to extend its fiber-optic network to unserved and underserved areas in parts of more than a dozen area counties .
The company is teaming up with several local and state nonprofit agencies in new ways to leverage the state funding and qualify for the grant.
The challenge, however, is that the company must spend the millions going toward installing some 300 miles of new line and related wireless equipment within the next 80-some days.
That’s because of a federal government requirement attached to money, which flowed from the federal CARES Act, that it be spent before the end of the year or it will have to be repaid.
To put the challenge in perspective, when the Federal Communication Commission awarded the company $6.2 million through its Connect America Fund (CAF II) “reverse auction” in 2018, IdeaTek was given five years to spend the dollars.
Who will be served
The plan is to provide gigabit fiber to more than 4,200 properties, plus high-speed wireless to another 3,352 homes that now have less than 25/3 Mbps service, according to IdeaTek spokesperson Abby Stockebrand.
The projects are centered on several areas, primarily in Meade, Chase, Reno and Edwards counties, but also extending into parts of several counties that neighbor them.
Towns scheduled to receive gigabit fiber internet include: Langdon, Arlington, Abbyville, Willowbrook, Pretty Prairie, Kismet, Plains, Meade, Fowler, Minneola, Bloom, Kingsdown, Ford, Cedar Point, Elmdale, Strong City, Cottonwood Falls and Cullison, she said.
“Our coverage area is increasing exponentially, given the exponential need for high-speed internet,” Stockebrand said. “We have been testing our new age wireless technology in Meade County and the success of this gives us the confidence to expand widely throughout Kansas and provide people a service they need immediately.”
IdeaTek’s employment numbers have already jumped from 40 to 60 employees, and Stockebrand said there’s a possibility it will add up to 60 more jobs over the next three years. The growth, she said, is not all due to the new grant, but includes organic expansion of its network thanks to the new lines, in addition to the past CAF II award.
As part of the grant application, the Hutchinson Community Foundation agreed to provide a $215,000 loan to help cover the required private match, which attracted an additional $225,000 loan and $25,000 grant from the Kansas Community Investment Fund, a fund created through a partnership between the Kansas Health Foundation and NetWork Kansas.
Greater Hutch, the economic development partnership for Reno County, committed to a $30,000 workforce grant, and will work with the United Way of Reno County to connect with low-income residents to help pay for the high-speed internet service.
IdeaTek must provide the remainder of the $3.5 million private investment.
The need, noted several people working to secure the award, has been made both more obvious and ever greater by the global virus pandemic, which has forced more students to learn and many employees to work from home.
“COVID has really provided a focus on the need for broadband expansion,” said Sen. Ed Berger, R-Hutchinson. “It has absolutely magnified the importance of having broadband access across the state.”
“I had a mom friend talking about having to leave the house at 6:30 at night to drive around town to find a Wi-Fi hotspot,” said Aubrey Abbott Patterson, director of the Hutchinson Community Foundation. “So many kids don’t have access to the internet. Whether it’s spotty or unavailable, as a parent, that’s pretty stressful.”
IdeaTek came to them early on to begin discussions about what could be done, Patterson said.
“I applaud IdeaTek for initiating conversations with superintendents and teachers and counselors to say ‘what is the scope of the issue in schools and how can we help kids who are now at home and trying to study,” Patterson said. “Daniel (Friesen, company co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer) then said to us ‘we need help to fix it.’ That’s where we started. We wanted to have a conversation and be a part of it, to figure out how to invest and to change lives.”
New Foundation program
The five-year loan from the foundation – only the second of its kind by the agency – is providing part of a 20% match IdeaTek had to pledge to secure the grant. The company will pay it back as it builds out its fiber-optic system and new broadband clients come online, Patterson said.
“We don’t have enough money to fix the infrastructure and provide rural broadband, but we can make an investment in a locally owned internet provider to get that infrastructure built quickly,” Patterson said. “Our investment is a small bit to make that happen.”
“We expect to do more of these,” Patterson said of her agency’s loan. “We were looking for opportunities to invest locally. Why just put our money in the stock market when we can invest it here and grow jobs?”
Their goal ultimately, she said, is to have 5% of their total assets, which are currently $80 million, invested in Hutchinson.
They became aware of the need early in the pandemic of people who couldn’t afford internet access, said Lisa Gleason, executive director of the United Way of Reno County.
“And we knew of other partners who were also willing to step up and make an impact on this daunting issue,” she said.
“That’s really what it’s about, identifying issues in our community and coming together as a collective to say ‘we can make a deeper impact if we work together to solve it,’” she said. “We’re helping to provide a portion of the funds that will go directly to those who are lower income.”
They haven’t established exactly how the program will work, Gleason said, “but if they can show us they have a need and can’t afford it, we’ll figure out how to get dollars to them to get set up.”
What sets Reno County apart, said Rep. Jason Probst, D-Hutchinson – who has a daughter and grandchildren living in rural Reno County with no access to the internet – is “that we don’t throw up our hands and say ‘it can’t be done.’ “
“Under this idea of a public-private partnership, one of the best components is where you deliver public and private resources to create the most public good,” he said.
“I would say the next step is to make sure we don’t continue to push out just into unserved areas, but the underserved,” he said, noting current broadband service maps are inaccurate. “We have to keep in mind going forward what the demand is not just today, but the needs in 20, 30 or 50 years.”