Congress must pass a bipartisan infrastructure plan to close the digital divide

By Laura Kelly and Stan Stark
Special to Gannett Kansas
Gov. Laura Kelly
Stan Stark

In Kansas today, more than 170,000 people — our family, friends, and neighbors — lack access to a vital, daily resource: broadband connectivity. Across the country, an estimated 42 million are without this critical tool.

The events of the past year demonstrate clearly what we already knew: Affordable, reliable, fast broadband is not a luxury — it’s a necessity for nearly every aspect of our lives.

Kansans, no matter where they live, need access to health care through telehealth services, students need to be able to attend school and access educational resources virtually, farmers need the increased agricultural efficiency and outputs that broadband allows, and our businesses need to be able to compete in an increasingly digital economy.

The belief that we are stronger when we all are connected brought us together as a governor and a business leader. We know a connected, fully empowered Kansas is a game-changer and a significant economic catalyst — especially in our rural and underserved neighborhoods.

We gathered recently in Spearville to celebrate this vision alongside Beth Ford, president and CEO of Land O’Lakes, Inc., the farmer-owned co-operative where Alliance Ag & Grain are retail member-owners, and Joe Nail, co-founder and CEO of Lead For America, a Dodge City-based organization that engages leaders to make a difference in their hometowns.

Land O’Lakes, Lead For America, and others recently launched the American Connection Corps, an innovative, boots-on-the-ground project to boost connectivity and digital inclusion in Wabaunsee County and Wichita. The program will support 50 leaders across the country as they return to their home communities and focus specifically on connectivity.

This type of public-private partnership is critically important, especially in rural communities. But even more important is passing forward-thinking and ambitious policies that will move our state and nation forward.

We’re already doing this in Kansas, but to be a truly connected state, we need Congress to act immediately on a bipartisan infrastructure bill containing vital broadband investments.

Bipartisan action is possible. Last year the state Legislature passed a landmark 10-year transportation plan with $85 million included for broadband deployment, the first time in Kansas history that general funds were dedicated to expanding high-speed internet access.

Since 2019, the Kelly administration has designated $145 million towards broadband expansion and is committed to continuing this progress until the connectivity gap is closed for everyone.

In Kansas, our motto is “Ad Astra Per Aspera,” or “To the Stars Through Difficulties.” Let’s urge our leaders in Congress to embody this spirit and pass a meaningful, bipartisan infrastructure bill that delivers for all, from Spearville to Topeka and everywhere in between.

Laura Kelly is the governor of Kansas, and Stan Stark is chief executive officer of Alliance Ag & Grain.