OSWEGO — A 256-page study could serve as a roadmap for internet service providers to expand broadband coverage in Labette County.
Labette County commissioners, who paid Finley Engineering of Lamar, Missouri, $69,350 to complete the study, accepted the work on Monday and reviewed highlights with Jim Zaleski, the city of Parsons economic development director. The county paid for the study with its American Rescue Plan Act funding from the federal government.
The study featured in-depth interviews with residents, businesses and internet providers in the county.
The study also listed varied broadband speeds in the county, most of which are poor. Much of southern Labette County reported download speeds of 10 to 13 megabits per second and upload speeds of 1 mbps. Oswego reported faster speeds, though County Counselor Brian Johnson, who lives in Oswego, noted that he pays for a 25 mbps download speed and has topped out at 13. He is supposed to have a 1 mbps upload speed. According to the study map, Parsons has the best download speeds at 163 mbps and 22 mbps for uploads.
There are areas of Parsons that have much slower speeds, however. Commissioner Cole Proehl has said that his current residence has much slower speeds than his previous home.
Wave Wireless is in the process of installing fiber internet to a number of homes in rural Labette County. The company received $5.2 million (half a grant, half a loan) to install fiber to 1,390 homes. Zaleski told commissioners Monday that Galen Manners of Wave Wireless used the study to seek another grant to serve 130 households in a 26-square-mile area in western Labette County, west of Big Hill Lake.
“It’s already serving the purpose it was meant to serve,” Zaleski said of the study.
He hopes internet service providers will use the study to seek grant funding to bring broadband service to the unserved or underserved areas of the county, which is more than half of the county, most in the south. He said Nextlink has received federal money to bring fixed wireless broadband to certain areas west of Parsons and northwest and southwest of Edna.
Zaleski said one of the next steps is to meet with the state’s broadband department and seek funding to address these challenges in the county. If Wave Wireless can address some of this territory with fiber internet and CrawKan could address other areas, as well as other providers, the unserved areas of the county could dwindle.
The study addressed costs to provide this service, $33 million for unserved areas of the county and about $19 million to bring fiber internet to Parsons because of expressed public dissatisfaction with the quality of broadband. The study also noted that Sparklight, one of the providers in Parsons, is making upgrades to its network in Parsons that could alleviate some of the complaints Finley staff heard.
Commissioner Terry Weidert was pleased that Wave Wireless was seeking another grant for homes west of Big Hill. Wave Wireless’ current grant had to exclude some of that territory because of a service provider that could have served that area from Montgomery County.
“There was a lot of upset people because (the Wave Wireless fiber is) a quarter of a mile away,” Weidert said.
The study noted that Wave Wireless and CrawKan were working to bring fiber broadband to rural parts of the county. Still, the study found 1,997 homes and businesses that are not slated to get fiber broadband.
The study recommended buried fiber broadband service compared to draping lines on utility poles. Adding buried lines would require 318 miles of fiber lines in unserved and underserved areas of the county and 91 miles of fiber lines in Parsons.
Zaleski asked commissioners if they would consider developing a countywide land bank, which could be used as a way to create more housing, which is a goal of the land bank in Parsons. Commissioners seemed supportive and Zaleski said he would return to a later meeting to discuss the issue further. He said smaller communities, such as Bartlett or Labette City, could perhaps partner with the countywide land bank.
County Counselor Johnson said this would require an interlocal agreement approved by the attorney general. He said when the government places land in a land bank the land is off the tax rolls and the land bank holds the property tax free until the land is released or sold. Back taxes are eliminated from these parcels.
Zaleski said in Parsons not all land offered is accepted into the land bank. The land must be able to be repurposed. The land bank is focusing on building homes.
“We’ve had plenty of land offered to us that’s in the flood plain and we’ve said no. Because it would just sit in the land bank in perpetuity and not be built on,” he said.
He said the exception is if the donated land could be used for mitigation. For example, if donated land was south of a housing area and could be cleared to retain floodwater and keep it away from the homes, that would serve a purpose and the homes would benefit.
“That’s repurposing the land for mitigation,” Zaleski said.
Commissioner Lonie Addis asked if the parcels in the county tax sale that never seem to sell could be donated. Johnson said he typically sees between 80 and 100 parcels rolling over from sale to sale. These are small lots and most are in Parsons in the flood plain. They could be green spaces but the Federal Emergency Management Agency will not allow homes to be built on them.
Zaleski said the city’s weed complaint letters have led to at least one donation. He said a man in Nowata, Oklahoma, visited the city about a weed nuisance letter in his wife’s name for property she owned in town. She had died and he didn’t know she owned land in Parsons. The man agreed to donate the parcel to the city’s land bank.
Also, Laura Moore, the city of Parsons community development director, told commissioners that the county could receive $100,000 over two years to be used for economic development, affordable housing, transportation and infrastructure from the federal government. Commissioners agreed to apply for the grant money.