Broadband Expansion in Spring Hill and Miami County

For many years, the town of Spring Hill Kansas struggled to attract internet providers interested in building high-speed broadband networks for its residents. Spring Hill often found itself being overlooked by providers and outside observers, who assumed that all of the towns in Johnson County were already fully served. In reality, as recently as five years ago Spring Hill had average broadband speeds just one tenth the national average, and was listed as having one of the ten slowest broadband speeds in the country for jurisdictions of its size. 

Things started to change when the internet provider RG Fiber received a grant to upgrade the broadband network in Spring Hill. They began building fiber throughout the town, but stalled about halfway through the build when the company ran out of capital. Progress on broadband then stalled for several years until Comcast decided to move into the area and invest $10-15 million of its own capital to build out the entire city with fiber-to-the-home (FTTH). After this announcement RG Fiber (since purchased by ClearWave) restarted construction, and soon Spring Hill residents will have multiple fiber providers competing for their subscriptions. 

A similar story has played out within Miami County more broadly. For many years towns in the county had struggled to attract broadband investment. Though the county had cable and DSL coverage, internet providers saw the region as being too high-cost to justify investment in upgraded infrastructure. Today, however, all of Miami County’s largest municipalities–Louisburg, Osawatomie, Paola, and Spring Hill–either already have at least one fiber provider, or are currently building out FTTH service. 

Some of this progress has been driven by newfound provider interest–as in Spring Hill’s case–but much of it has been the result of grant funding opportunities made available during the pandemic. Miami County spent around a third of the ARPA pandemic relief funds they received from the federal government on technology initiatives. This included hiring a firm to conduct broadband planning work for the county and working with interested providers to develop grant applications to fund network expansions in the county. 

The result of this work has been a series of successes in winning grant funding for network construction throughout the county. Three providers ended up winning Broadband Acceleration Grants from the Kansas Office of Broadband to fund expansions in Spring Hill, Hillsdale, Somerset, and Paola. The county also benefited from over $100,000 in SPARK funding that went towards improving connectivity for Paola’s school district and new fiber connections in Osawatomie. Most recently, Miami County submitted 15 proposals with five providers for funding through the Capital Project Fund, which resulted in Mo-Kan Dial receiving $5.6 million to support their fiber expansion in the county. 

In addition to supporting grant applications for infrastructure, Miami county has also worked to improve connectivity and digital equity in other ways. On the infrastructure side, Economic Development Director Janet McRae has worked to lead discussions on zoning, right of way access, and pole sharing agreements to make it easier for internet providers to quickly build new infrastructure. The county also helped gather data and conduct assessments to determine the areas that were in greatest need of improved service. On the digital equity side, the county has been working with their adult education center and homeless shelter to expand digital literacy and workforce training programs. The county also has worked to ensure that the requirements of the area’s high special needs population were being taken into account during planning. 

Perspectives from Internet Service Providers

The providers involved in building these new fiber networks range from major national ISPs like Comcast to small family-owned companies like Mo-Kan Dial. Some fiber providers have only recently moved into residential service, like WANRack, who was previously focused on providing connectivity to schools and other anchor institutions, and KwiKom, who started out as a wireless broadband provider serving rural Kansas communities. 

Before the pandemic, many providers were hesitant to invest in rural communities due to the high costs involved. Government funding has been crucial in making many rural broadband projects economically viable, and has helped communities draw in large amounts of private investment. Miami County, for example, has ended up receiving millions of dollars of state and private investment for the price of just a few tens of thousands of dollars in cost-sharing commitments. Successful grant-funded projects can also end up being beneficial even to neighbors who are not covered as part of the initial build. Because it is so much cheaper to expand an existing network than to build one from scratch, new fiber projects can serve as a launching point for upgrading the infrastructure in communities that would otherwise never have attracted attention. 

In addition to grant programs, there are a number of other ways that providers have been able to work with communities to accelerate broadband deployment. These include reforming permitting policies, right-of-way agreements, and dig once policies that can lower costs and speed the construction process. By engaging early with communities, providers have been able to remove these roadblocks early, and build relationships with local officials that can help them serve as trusted partners in digital equity projects over the long term.

Notably, communities may end up having a more challenging time negotiating with providers as time goes on. As national providers become more aggressive at going after grant opportunities, many cities and counties may face dilemmas over competing proposals that no longer emerge from a group of known local partners. Without strong support from state officials who can provide technical expertise to local administrators, it will be difficult for officials to know which projects to support and partner on. With the federal Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program on the horizon, it will be important for state and local officials to take lessons from the grant programs so far in order to ensure that upcoming funding opportunities can be leveraged to help as many communities as possible gain access to high quality broadband. 

Joe Berkey, Mayor of the City of Spring Hill, KS; Janet McRae, Economic Development Director of Miami County, KS; John Terry, Director of Customer Experience, KwiKom; David Soffer, Director of Business Development, WANRack; Karly Baraga-Werner, Senior Director of Government & Regulatory Affairs, Comcast; Chase Custer, VP & Director of Finance, MoKan Communications; and Morgan Barnes, Engagement and Outreach Manager, Kansas Office of Broadband Development presented to the Kansas City Coalition for Digital Inclusion on April 14th, 2023.

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