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The Gold Rush in Kansas

by: Pam Gregory, Director, Accessibility and Innovation Initiative

November 19, 2010

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They’re going for the gold in Kansas, with plans to make broadband available to everyone in the Sunflower State.

I recently was fortunate enough to witness this gold rush first-hand by attending the Kansas Broadband Summit, where current state of broadband deployment was discussed, as well as the plans for future deployment of broadband services. Stanley Adams, the broadband planning manager for the state’s Department of Commerce reported that Kansas received over $250 million in broadband deployment grants and loans from the National Telecommunications and Infrastructure Administration (NTIA), which is part of the Department of Commerce and the Rural Utility Service (RUS), which is part of the Department of Agriculture. That’s a lot of amount of money for a smaller state, but Kansas has a significant rural population, and its leaders are aiming to make broadband available to all.

I learned a lot from the Kansan stakeholders who attended the conference. Their plan is comprehensive, covering everything from detailed mapping, to provider validation, and even adoption plans. And like any time you get a room of stakeholders engaged, new ideas were sparked on how to improve the plan. As an FCC staff person, it was a thrill for me to see and feel the excitement of a state actually implementing its broadband plan. And as with the beginnings of California’s gold rush in 1879, the new broadband gold rush in Kansas promises great benefits to the state citizenry. ,“From a business standpoint, it [broadband] means increased opportunities for entrepreneurship and new small-business development,” Kansas Lt. Governor Findley said. “How many entrepreneurs out there have the next big-idea, but have no way to share it?” Kansans know that broadband is just as valuable as gold, and know the wealth it can bring.

Stanley Adams and Duncan Friend, both Kansas employees leading their state’s broadband initiative, invited me to speak on a panel about disability access. They said that they wanted Kansas’ broadband to be accessible and usable to all of its citizens, especially Kansans with disabilities. The audience’s questions on accessible deployment were universally thoughtful and insightful—they all saw the importance of an accessible broadband plan and knew such a plan would collaterally help other populations, such as seniors, non-native English speakers, educational and medical institutions, and the business community. The panel was so popular that we gave a repeat presentation later that same day.

To implement its plan, Kansas has partnered with Connected Nation, a 501(c)(3) organization. Tom Feree, the chief operations officer of Connected Nation said, “We exist because we believe that states, communities, families and individuals can realize great economic and social advantages when we accelerate broadband availability in unserved areas and increase broadband use in all areas, rural and urban, alike.” His statement again reminded me of the promise of 1849 gold rush, which lead to the building of our nation’s railway system, which in some ways is being replaced by fiber optics today.

Kansas has prioritized Community Anchor Institutions (CAIs) such as K-12 schools, libraries, healthcare centers, public safety entities, colleges and universities and other government and non-governmental organizations. I can’t help but wonder how many of those “other” organizations are entities that serve people with disabilities. The chief technology officer of the Kansas School for the Deaf, Joe Oborny, attended knowing how much is at stake in Kansas’ broadband plan. The ability for students to use video for calls, video conferences with excellent teachers of the deaf, and to connect with the state and nation are critical to a successful educational institution.

As I look back on the conference, I am confident that the leadership will follow through with its commitment for an accessible broadband plan. The stakes are too high not to. Soon after my return to Washington, Kansas contacted me asking how to develop more partnerships with the disability community, which demonstrates to me that they mean what they say in Kansas: All Kansans will be able to access broadband. For that, I give them a gold medal.

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