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To help rural communities, Kansans and their lawmakers will need to do more than the inadequate broadband funds approved by the Legislature recently.
In Topeka and nationwide, voters and their elected officials need to understand that everyone benefits from collective investments in decent roads, internet service, educational opportunities and access to health care.
That’s part of the American experience dating back to the 1700s, when governments helped build roads to help farmers get produce to town. That didn’t just help farmers, it also helped city residents who wanted to eat.
The investments continued with huge federal subsidies to railroads in the 1800s, which opened new states and territories for settlement and commerce.
President Franklin Roosevelt’s programs brought electricity and telephone to rural America starting in the 1930s.
In the 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower launched the interstate highway program.
Better highways and rural electrification and telephone service helped not only small towns and rural America, they helped the country become a leading producer and exporter of food.
Such advancements and connections generally come with pluses and minuses.
In agriculture, for example, running a farm now takes a lot fewer people and a lot more machinery. The advancements have been one factor in rural population declines.
And although there are niche farming operations working to prove there are exceptions to the big-is-more-efficient rule, it’s not likely that overall trends will revert to Americana 1920.
Big or small, technology is essential to any business that wants to survive in the 21st century.
Today, internet service is as basic as electricity or roads or phones were 50 years ago.
Yet many Kansans don’t have access to decent internet service. Or if decent service is available, the cost is prohibitive.
Official reports — with data supplied by companies offering internet service — show virtually every Kansan has access.
But reports that rely on customers and potential customers find that nearly a quarter of all rural Americans say internet access is a major problem, and another 38 percent say it’s an issue.
Internet problems aren’t limited to rural Kansas. Many Kansans think their service is lousy and the price outrageous.
Problems are exacerbated for rural residents. Most companies aren’t interested in doing business in areas where the population is too sparsely populated to maximize profits.
In poorer non-rural neighborhoods, service is skimpy or unreliable because residents don’t earn enough money to buy increasingly expensive services.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Kansas universities and schools started closing their doors and moving operations online. The state’s poor connectivity issues immediately became apparent.
Access and affordability issues undermine the potential and ambitions of Kansans every day. A health crisis just made them obvious.
Investing in ways to bring high-speed, reliable, affordable internet service to all Kansans is among the ways we can make a collective investment in the state’s future. It would help small towns and cities deal with health care access and educational opportunities.
It would make rural communities more attractive to business. Because virtually every business — farming, sales, banking, retail and so on — must have reliable, fast internet service.
Without collective investments made in the past, your food would not be so plentiful or so cheap. You couldn’t get that overnight delivery from Amazon, or (in non-pandemic times) hop in the car for a weekend getaway.
Rural investments pay dividends not only to rural America, but to all of us.
A native of Garden City, Julie Doll is a former journalist who has worked at newspapers across Kansas.