Dodge City and Ford County was chosen to be one of four Kansas communities for a state broadband Internet pilot program which aims to assess and plan for infrastructure and service development.

Broadband Internet is a great economic equalizer, said the head of the state's high-speed connection initiative following the announcement that Dodge City and Ford County will be one of four pilot communities identifying long-term structural and service needs.

"The goal is focused on broadband technology being harnessed for further economic development," Kansas Statewide Broadband Initiative Director Stanley Adams. This program provides access to tools, expertise and resources for community's to identify their own particular needs.

The program, funded through a federal grant, piggybacks on work already initiated in the city to identify connectivity needs, stakeholders and how to expand access.

"We want to make resources available for the local community to drive the bus, if you will, rather than the have the state formally saying 'This is what you need to do in your community,' " Adams said.

The other three pilot communities are Topeka, Fort Scott, Norton and their counties. These communities could be used as a model in the next phase of local access surveys and inventory counts, Adams said.  

One example of a potential need is wireless access for travelers in light of Dodge's growing tourism market, said the city's information officer, Jane Longmeyer, who had already begun work on the issue with Greta Clark of Dodge City Community College and Kathy Reeves of the public library.

Another example is the needs of USD 443 following the rollout of student tablet computers, which are highly integrated with the Internet, Adams said.

Local service providers would ultimately be responsible for expansions of service, but by understanding the needs of the community, leaders will be better equipped to articulate their desires and educate the public on ways broadband connections can improve their quality of life or businesses, Adams said.

Businesses might not be aware how faster Internet connections or wider wireless availability can help their bottom line such as by mitigating business data loss or creating better services for selling products to a wider market.  

One of the tools that will be made available to planners in the community can compare deficiencies in the community to the infrastructure costs to address them, Adams said.

"One way to think about it," Adams said of the program, "we're making it easier for a community to coalesce around some priorities."

"This is an opportunity for local communities to step up and be competitive," Adams said.

Each of the pilot programs involves both the cities and their counties, and seeks to address not just urban needs but rural as well.

The initiative comes at a time where the United States sees its early network advantage waning. Americans pay more for slower connections than other wealthy countries while also being a hotbed of Internet-based media delivery and telecommunications advances.

The Kansas pilot program is funded through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, or NTIA, a program of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Some technologies, like copper wire-based DSL, are showing their age and limitations compared to ultra-fast in-home fiber-optics connections being unveiled in limited markets around the nation. Though strictly speaking, the older technologies are broadband, they are not able to meet the data demands of modern, media-rich Internet usage like streaming video.

"Until recently, research on broadband availability has typically taken a binary approach, i.e., whether it is or is not available in a certain area. Today, however, consumers, businesses and institutional users have a variety of broadband requirements, and faster speeds are among the most important," an NTIA study of broadband access concluded.

The NTIA discovered major gaps in coverage of faster connections between rural and urban areas. The major implication to this would be a weakening of rural communities' competitiveness in important emerging, data-rich industries, and for residents access to cultural products, news and communication.

The state program is "a great opportunity," Adams said. "Any time you talk about technology, it poses barriers that seem hard to overcome, but when you delve into it a little bit you see opportunities. And you don't have to be a computer programmer to take advantage of it."