In the News

The Emporia Gazette 
By Jessie Wagoner

U.S. Senator Jerry Moran paid ValuNet a visit Monday to learn from executives about broadband access issues facing rural communities.

Emporia is a unique, mid-sized community in the state, as it is one of the only communities of its size to have access to broadband thanks to the fiber service provided by ValuNet. Executives with the company explained to Moran how they made broadband a reality for Emporians.

One barrier for mid-sized communities is finding funding to bring broadband to their cities. Small rural towns like Madison and Strong City are able to utilize fiber through the rural telephone companies. However, mid-sized cities do not have access to funding or rural providers. ValuNet was able to find local residents willing to invest in the company to bring access to the city.

“We got over 50 investors from Emporia to invest in this thing to the tune of almost $6 million,” Steve Sauder, chairman and managing partner, said. “We turned around a couple years later and were trying to get money from the banks and couldn’t, so we raised another almost $2 million from investors again. That got us started.”

However, funding through private investors is a rarity, and other communities in the state continue to do without technology because funding for such endeavors is limited. Traditional banks are hesitant to loan money for fiber services because it is not a traditional brick and mortar business.

Moran said people in Washington often consider rural communities to be small towns in Kansas with less than 5,000 residents. However, the biggest need for access to fiber are those communities with populations between 20,000 and 50,000. Small towns have the access, but cities like Manhattan, Gardner, Salina and Great Bend are struggling to find a way to keep up with technology.

“This is no longer a problem for cities under 20,000,” President of ValuNet Rick Tidwell said. “This is a problem for cities over 20,000 to 50,000. It goes back to the definition of rural. What is rural? I think in Washington they think of rural as being these small towns like Olpe and Madison. Well, that was taken care of, but now it is the mid-sized towns in Kansas that are falling by the wayside.”

Moran agreed with ValuNet executives about the struggles the state faces on how to ensure all residents have access to technology. He said access to technology is key to retaining citizens and recruiting businesses.

“How do we keep communities across Kansas alive and well and create a greater opportunity for kids to stay or return home?” Moran said. “There are lots of issues that surround that, but one of them is access to technology. In the absence of that technology, our ability to provide quality health care, to have the best educational system, to attract businesses who need to connect with the world in the most expedient way begins to disappear. It is a competitive environment out there, and you will find businesses and people out there who are going to live or work someplace else if they don’t have access to the latest technology.”

Moran said it is essential to find a way to fill in the gaps so all communities have access to the latest technology.

“Finding ways to fill in the gaps where that technology is difficult on a for-profit basis is important,” Moran said. “What I’ve heard today tells me there is great need and significant potential to provide services to mid-sized communities, but the barrier comes in financing.”

Valunet executives shared information with Moran in hopes he could advocate for funding since so many communities are not able to solicit private investors. Moran said he is encouraged to look into the issue further.

“It encourages me today, from what I have heard, that there is such a commitment to Emporia,” Moran said. “It is one of the things that is so valuable about rural America. You have business men and women who have an idea and then are able to raise money within a community mostly for the sake of the community. The encouraging thing is that across Kansas there are communities like Emporia where others like chambers of commerce, cities and others will step up to make things happen. There is also a program at the federal level called Rural Utilities Services within the Department of Agriculture that provides this kind of support for providing broadband services in the country.”

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