Not long after adding new territory to its coverage area in 2017, KanOkla Networks learned a customer in a remote stretch of northern Oklahoma was struggling with internet service outages – particularly in the autumn.

The best solution, KanOkla officials decided, was to run a mile of fiber optic cable from an existing fiber line to a ranch out in the middle of a pasture several miles from Pawhuska.

The Osage Hills of northern Oklahoma are a southern extension of the storied Flint Hills of Kansas – prairie grasslands clinging to a thin layer of topsoil nestled atop rock.

It’s what spared the Flint Hills from the farmer’s plow. But it also made for hard digging.

It took a two-man crew “all week” to dig a trench to the ranch, KanOkla CEO Jill Kuehny said.

All the while, thousands of cars drove past where they were working. It wasn’t the project that attracted attention, it was the customer.

Pioneer Woman

The new fiber line was for the ranch house where the popular Food Network show “The Pioneer Woman” is filmed.

In 2006, Ann Marie “Ree” Drummond launched a blog from the historic ranch her husband operates. The blog made her famous, earning international attention, winning awards and spawning the television show in 2011.

“She’s kind of a big deal,” Kuehny said of Drummond. “We were pretty excited about her specific problem we were able to solve.

“I didn’t know she filmed her show out there” on the historic Codding Ranch, Kuehny said.

 “We just assumed she filmed in Pawhuska,” the county seat where Drummond owns an entire block of buildings, including a mercantile.

Along with the fiber optic cable, KanOkla added a wireless transmitter to an unused cell tower on a ridge overlooking the ranch. To provide power, the cooperative installed a solar hub and battery backup to provide electricity.

Kuehny called it “a blended, hybrid solution” for Drummond’s needs.

The project was a key reason KanOkla received a Smart Rural Community award at a recent rural broadband conference in Denver.

“They’re us”

While some may see the project as a publicity stunt, Kuehny said it proved significant for multiple reasons. When KanOkla took over its new coverage area in Oklahoma, local residents were skeptical.

“At first we were greeted with ‘Who is this big corporation from Kansas?’” Kuehny said. “Their edges were up with us. ‘Are they a fly-by-night operation?’

“We are the opposite of that. We’ve been around for 69 years. We had to go out and do some meet-and-greet. We love the area. They’re us. They’re just another extension of us.”

As Oklahoma residents learned more about KanOkla, they grew more comfortable with the new providers.

Residents were impressed by the efforts KanOkla made to meet Drummond’s needs. For Kuehny, it was business as usual.

“You do what you need to do to give your members the ability to do what they need to do,” she said.

A rancher with property next to the Codding Ranch saw what KanOkla was doing and was intrigued.

“He was hoping to push it to the next level with his livestock production sale,” Kuehny said.

KanOkla extended a fixed wireless connection from the fiber-fed tower to his property and the rancher is now able to livestream his sales, increasing his profits. More and more KanOkla customers are seeing what fiber can do, Kuehny said, and exploring how to benefit from it.

“It’s pretty exciting,” she said.

Patching service gaps

KanOkla, which is based in Caldwell, serves 5,700 customers in Kansas and Oklahoma. Its Kansas fixed wireless customers are predominantly north and west of Wichita, stretching west to Kingman and east to Newton.

But KanOkla also hugs the Oklahoma border for about 130 miles in southern Kansas with fiber fed communities. The cooperative spans nearly 8,000 square miles in both states with both regulated fiber areas and fixed wireless customers.

KanOkla serves more than 50 rural communities in southcentral Kansas and northcentral Oklahoma, offering IT services along with internet, telephone, website design and print shop.

The cooperative has 53 employees and will continue to grow, Kuehny said, as it continues to expand services and look for ways for businesses to blossom. One area showing particular demand recently is IT services, especially with rural school districts.

Even as new sectors show potential, though, Kuehny recognizes the value of not forgetting what are now considered basic services: high-speed internet and cell phone services.

“We’re in this weird pickle,” Kuehny said. “Super, super small areas are covered. It’s those little county seats that are left out to dry. We’re trying to take on three of those.”

There are still cell phone dead zones in the geographic area covered by KanOkla, and the cooperative is working to help eliminate them. Slow internet remains a problem in parts of the region, too.

“You can almost hear that dial-up tone,” Kuehny said.

Earlier this year, KanOkla was awarded a federal grant to help bring fiber infrastructure to five small towns in the Oklahoma counties of Kay and Osage: Shidler, Webb City, Foraker, Grainola and Wynona.

“They told us on the application, ‘You get points for rurality,’” Kuehny said. “In our world, that’s never happened.”

The $30 million award is through the USDA ReConnect program, which helps finance the costs of construction, improvement or acquisition of facilities and equipment needed to provide broadband service in eligible rural areas. Half of the award is a grant, while the other half is a loan to KanOkla.

“They have been waiting and waiting” to have high-speed Internet in those areas, Kuehny said.

Construction work on the project is slated to begin soon.

Applying lessons

With the Pioneer Woman experience serving as a prototype, KanOkla is looking for how to incorporate fiber and wireless communications as much as possible for its customers.

Along with other rural cooperatives, “we’re trying to get the state connected” with fiber, Kuehny said. “It’s going to take a few years.”

Setting up Caldwell and other KanOkla service areas as a place where people could live and work remotely is “our number one push,” she said.

The cooperative is creating a co-working space in downtown Caldwell in partnership with the City of Caldwell and Sumner County Economic Development, and more buildings in downtown could be made available for startups in 2020.

“If we can attract that mindset of living first – ‘If I could work online for anyone in the world, where would I want to live?’ – that’s what we’d like to do,” Kuehny said.

Caldwell and rural Kansas would be appealing for people looking for good schools, a quiet way of life and an affordable cost of living, she said. Unlike many small towns, Caldwell has been able to hold onto historic buildings, and Kuehny hopes to attract grants tied to art and history to help revitalize the community.

But for small towns to thrive, Kuehny said, they’ll have to do a better job of giving graduates a good reason to stay – or return home after they graduate from college.

“We need to start some start-ups here,” she said.

“We’ve got to reinvent ourselves down here, We need to grow our own workforce. We have very capable young people. We just need to make that more of a priority.”

Jill Kuehny, KanOkla CEO

Reinvention is key

Borrowing from WSU Tech and ventures such as Project Wichita, community leaders have launched Vision Caldwell.

“We’ve got to reinvent ourselves down here,” Kuehny said. “We need to grow our own workforce. We have very capable young people. We just need to make that more of a priority.”

Schools such as Cowley College and WSU Tech can provide training for skills that would allow more young people to stay close to home if they want, she said.

KanOkla became members of Flagship Kansas, Kuehny said, because the entities share a common perspective: they recognize technology will be driving the economy of the future for the Sunflower State.

Kuehny went through a training course at the Kansas Leadership Center in Wichita and was so impressed she’s working to have other community leaders go through the program as well. Developing new generations of leadership will be vital as Caldwell and Kansas adapt to the evolving economic and business landscape, she said.

Author Credits | Stan Finger | @StanFinger | Stan is an award-winning journalist who twice earned nominations for the Pulitzer Prize over the course of a distinguished career at the Wichita Eagle. A native Kansan who grew up on a farm in central Kansas, Finger has also written two books: Into the Deep, a look at the deadly flash flood in the Flint Hills in 2003, and the novel Fallen Trees.

Photo Credits | Jeff Tuttle | Website | Jeff is a native Kansan from Augusta and a Kansas State University graduate. He married his high school sweetheart Laura, and they have two children, Erin and Zach and a handsome Cardigan Welsh corgi, Wembley. He is a former newspaper photographer with a 25-career at The Herald, Jasper, Indiana, and the Wichita Eagle, Wichita, Kansas. He is currently a freelance photojournalist in Wichita.