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Broadband internet remains concern for rural Kansas schools

Published: Aug. 24, 2020 at 8:38 AM CDT
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - The Dodge City School District is working to get every child internet access for remote learning.

United Communications says 30 to 50% of homes in Dodge City do not have access to internet at home. When Governor Laura Kelly shut down schools in March, it was hard for some students to continue learning.

This year the district bought 1,000 wifi hotspots. United Communications is setting up the hotspots for the district. Jeff Renner with United Communications says they're active from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. to allow students to get online and learn. The company is using just a couple hundred at the beginning of the year for students learning remotely and have more ready if schools are forced to close again.

The project is paid for from money made available by the CARES Act. Kansas named it the SPARK fund. One of the categories was making broadband internet available to low-income communities. The state received aid from the CARES Act.

Renner says he's thankful for the opportunity and funding to expand broadband in rural Kansas.

"You know some of the things that we are doing is definitely going to have a lasting impact," Renner says. "It's not going to fix all of rural Kansas by any stretch of the imagination, but it will help improve some of the areas because like I said we are deploying some new network and adding additional capacity for faster speeds in rural America."

United Communications provided more than 400 students in rural Kansas towns with internet access to allow them the chance to finish the spring semester. Renner says cost can be a factor that limit's a child's access to internet at home. He says, however, that is just one part of the problem.

Districts require students to video chat on sites like Zoom, stream videos for class instruction and download files. That consumes a lot of bandwidth. When many students in a community use high-bandwidth programs at the same time, a weak network cannot support it. Renner says United is spending a half-million dollars on new network equipment to support all the hotspots that will be hitting the network.

Renner says developing internet access is key to growing sustaining rural communities. “If we continue to not have broadband in rural areas, our children will not come back. When a kid goes off to college and experiences broadband in a city somewhere, and he comes back, he’s like, ‘I don’t think I can live here,’ so it is going to be important for us to find ways to be able to deploy these networks and have them supported,” Renner says.

The hotspots provided by the district will only allow access to sites used by the school. Leisure sites like Netflix and social media will be blocked.

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