Amid COVID, IdeaTek helps bridge digital divide to low-income families

When the pandemic shut down schools and caused thousands of Kansans to work from home in March, it created a new urgency to narrow the digital gap.

Thanks to a grant from the Kansas Department of Commerce, IdeaTek, Buhler, Kansas, was able to help gain reliable, high-speed internet access for low-income families across central and southwest Kansas.

The Broadband Partnership Adoption Grant program has allowed IdeaTek to provide 250 devices and a year of free internet to families who qualified for the federal government’s Lifeline program. The grant also helped the company create free public Wi-Fi hotspots in 17 communities across central and southwest Kansas.

In addition, IdeaTek partnered with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism to deploy free Wi-Fi hotspots within areas of Cheney State Park and Sand Hills State Park to expand high-speed broadband to locations that can be easily accessed by the public. Internet access at state parks is especially helpful for low-income and transient Kansans who may find themselves in mobile living situations as a cost-savings alternative.

“The Lifeline program, along with the free community Wi-Fi hotspots, provides a viable and timely solution to rural Kansas residents struggling with internet connectivity,” said Daniel Friesen, IdeaTek Founder and Chief Innovation Officer. “High-speed internet is essential in today’s world. The COVID-19 pandemic has made this even clearer as our lives become more virtual.”

Gaining access at home

Arlington resident Amanda Stoney said she no longer worries about her children not being able to connect to the internet in times of at home-learning. Previously she had to improvise when her children needed to complete their online homework, using her phone as an internet hotspot, which was expensive and unreliable.

Relief, however, came in December when the IdeaTek crew installed equipment to connect Stoney’s home to high-speed fiber-optic internet.

"We are excited because we actually have internet and the kids can stream when they need to for school," she said. “They use it to do their homework in the evenings. Our service has been working great.”

In southwest Kansas, USD 483 Kismet-Plains covers 540 square miles—from Liberal to Sublette, said Superintendent Dan Frisby. When school was shut down in March, many families didn’t have quality internet access. Some students tried to do work using their phones, which wasn’t a good option.

“We have kids scattered all over the place and connectivity has been a challenge,” he said. “Basically, a lot of our kids are low income, and it’s difficult for them to have opportunities for connectivity and devices. This program has been a great asset for our families in the district. We are greatly appreciative of IdeaTek.”

Meanwhile, just in time for Christmas, IdeaTek partnered with the Boys and Girls Club of Hutchinson, providing nearly 100 computers to those in need.

"Christmas is such an exciting time of year filled with joy and giving,” said the club’s Membership Coordinator Margo Douglas. “Unfortunately, for many of our families, this time of year is filled with worry and fear that they will not be able to make ends meet, especially during this time of Covid-19. Thanks to this generous donation, we were able to bring a little joy to our kids and relieve some of the worry our families face.”

Ideatek is a broadband service provider with the mission of “fighting for internet freedom.” IdeaTek uses a unique and innovative approach to deploy scalable, long-term fiber optic infrastructures, bridging the broadband gap in rural communities. IdeaTek has long been a state and national advocate for broadband equity policy and has built nearly 3,000 miles of fiber throughout Kansas. They were recently named to Inc. 5000’s list of fastest growing companies for the seventh time.