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

BUHLER, Kan. — 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 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 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,” Daniel Friesen, IdeaTek Founder and Chief Innovation Officer, said. “High-speed internet is essential in today’s world. The COVID-19 pandemic has made this even clearer as our lives become more virtual.”

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, Superintendent Dan Frisby said. 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.”

Individuals interested in IdeaTek internet can check future availability and sign up for service online.