KU researchers say internet service market has failed Kansans

Broadband access will soon be available at seven community centers across Berkeley County.
Broadband access will soon be available at seven community centers across Berkeley County.(Live 5)
Published: Mar. 22, 2023 at 1:48 PM CDT
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LAWRENCE, Kan. (WIBW) - New research from a team at the University of Kansas has found that the internet service provider market has failed Kansans statewide.

The University of Kansas announced on Wednesday, March 22, that researchers have finished a 2-year study of broadband access in the Sunflower State. The newly published report, “Broadband in Kansas: The Challenges of Digital Access and Affordability,” documents challenges in the current landscape and recommends a comprehensive strategy to address these challenges.

KU said the search indicates low levels of satisfaction across the state with current internet access and cost. The team identified areas throughout the state where the only available internet is poor or there is no available connection. Additionally, those in areas with inadequate or inconsistent internet service often pay high costs both with their wallet and their time.

According to the University, the gaps in broadband coverage limit the economic growth of the state reflecting the failure of the existing market to provide an essential service.

Further, the researchers said many residents live in regions with only one service provider. This lack of competition is associated with higher prices, lower speeds and lower satisfaction.

KU said the team described a divide in the digital literacy skills and tech support of Kansans based on field observations of those who use publicly available computers and the internet at libraries. As society becomes more reliant on computers, it is crucial that Kansans have a way to access and use those resources as well as the support of digital literacy.

In light of this market failure, KU indicated the research team strongly recommended a comprehensive strategy for Kansas to follow.

“The goal of our report was to understand where there were shortcomings in service in order to guide future investments in broadband. Our speed tests and survey have provided some useful information to the Office of Broadband Development as it uses federal resources to address state broadband needs,” said Donna Ginther, principal investigator of the study, Roy A. Roberts and Regents Distinguished Professor of Economics, and director of KU’s Institute for Policy & Social Research.

The study participants compared broadband access in the state to the electrification of the state - which required significant investments from the federal government. “Flipping the switch” on electricity led to drastic improvements in the quality of life as well as the economy. Participants repeatedly told researchers that affordable high-speed internet across the state would lead to similar improvements.

KU noted that the state recently established the Office of Broadband Development, which if funded adequately could become a clearinghouse for information about broadband needs, funding to help meet those needs and initiatives to improve connectivity. The office also could lead the development and implementation of a strategy to improve access statewide.

“In addition to challenges, we also found pockets of opportunity for Kansas to be particularly innovative in providing more universal access and digital equity across the state,” said co-investigator Germaine Halegoua, John D. Evans Development Professor & Associate Professor of Communication and Media at the University of Michigan. “Right now, there are several different private and public entities working on providing internet access in unserved and underserved areas, receiving state and federal funds, collecting data on Kansas broadband, and that have ideas and resources to share – but they don’t always know about each other or work together. A well-supported broadband office to continually collect, coordinate, curate and foster these efforts is a valuable foundation.”

According to the University, the study included a speed test, surveys, interviews, focus groups and field observations. The team collected data from Kansans from urban, rural and urban-adjacent settings with a range of income, skills and needs. The team also worked with internet service providers invested in seeing significant improvement.

KU noted that the research team includes Ginther, Halegoua, Xan Wedel, Thomas Becker and Genna Hurd of the Institute for Policy & Social Research as well as Walter Goettlich of the KU Department of Sociology, and was funded by the University Center CARES Act grant from the Economic Development Administration.