(TNS) — State officials are growing more optimistic about high-speed internet access helping to supplant coal jobs lost in the “Silicon Holler” of eastern Kentucky.
The Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) initiative hosted its third-annual summit on Monday in Pikeville’s East Kentucky Expo Center.
“There’s never been a greater necessity for invention, innovation, finding ways to supplement the coal industry,” U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers told more than 1,000 Kentuckians at the summit.
Coal production in Kentucky dipped last year to its lowest point since the Great Depression, according to the state Energy and Environmental Cabinet. The state’s coal industry lost 27.7 percent of its workforce in 2015. Less than 6,000 eastern Kentuckians are now employed by the coal industry, down from 14,381 in 2008, per the cabinet.
Still, Rogers contended “coal is not dead.”
“Coal is alive, coal is going to be with us for a long time,” said the 78-year-old congressman. “I’m going to be one of the biggest boosters of coal you’ll find. But I also realize we’ve got to find ways to supplement that employment we’ve lost in the industry over these years.”
A belief that eastern Kentucky can thrive with enhanced broadband connection was voiced frequently throughout the summit.
SOAR Executive Director Jared Arnett said the group is determined to connect the region more closely with the global economy. “But we also want communities, county judges and mayors to be better connected to one another. We want K through 12 (primary education) connected to workforce development and secondary education,” said Arnett.
Improving that connection is reliant on a faster, more readily available broadband network.
Gov. Matt Bevin, who inherited the role of SOAR co-chair when he assumed office this year, proposed on Monday the state refocus its initiative to expand broadband primarily on eastern Kentucky.
“This isn’t to say this isn’t needed in other places,” said Bevin. “But we are going to focus on where we need it the most.”
Seventy percent of Kentucky households have access to broadband, but internet-access speeds aren’t reaching their full potential, especially on the eastern side of the state.
Most of eastern Kentucky’s broadband “block groups” don’t have access to the federal minimum download speed of 25 megabytes per second, keynote speaker Roberto Gallardo said. And “less than 10 percent of Kentucky’s block groups don’t have access to 25 down,” he said.
Gallardo, of the Intelligent Community Institute, an extension of Mississippi State University, presented a map of the U.S. to reveal how eastern Kentucky is “on the wrong side of the divide” as it relates to internet access.
“It’s important and it is moving fast. We’ve got to make sure we get policy makers on the right side of the divide,” said Gallardo. “Why not come up with a telework-ready community?”
The concept of telecommuting, wherein workers perform jobs and earn pay from home or workplaces through a computer, was promoted throughout the summit.
The executive director for Hazard-based Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program (EKCEP), Jeff Whitehead, commended Jackson, Owsley and Perry Counties for adding “hubs” through Teleworks USA. Since 2015, nearly 60 Hazard residents have found work at the Hazard Teleworks Hub with companies like U-Haul and Sutherland CloudSource.
Whitehead said leaders of other coal cities and counties have expressed interest in opening telework hubs in their community.
Laid-off coal miners can also find work online by learning to write code for start-up tech companies in some Kentucky cities, like Pikeville.
Bit Source, which develops software and websites for companies, received heavy praise during the symposium. Creative director Payton May and president Justin Hall educated locals about Bit Source, one of about 15 companies and agencies that set up a booth in the arena.
“It started with the question, can you teach a coal miner to code?” said Hall, referencing the process of using algorithms to build websites and software.
The company employs six former coal miners, and only one of the 10 workers originally hired by the company was not previously working in the coal industry, Hall said.
Another SOAR partner, Louisville-based tech company Interapt, also wants to teach code to and employ residents of eastern Kentucky.
Interapt CEO Ankur Gopal announced on Monday his company will hire as many as 50 people, after training and assessing them later this year. Gopal said the prospective workers will train at Big Sandy Community and Technical College’s Mayo campus in Paintsville.
Some employees could even work remotely from eastern Kentucky, Gopal said.
Interapt is one of several companies working with the TechHire Eastern Kentucky Initiative, which partners with EKCEP and SOAR.
On Monday, dozens of SOAR partners were represented in the symposium. The SOAR initiative launched in 2013 and after organizing sessions in southern and eastern Kentucky communities, has placed an emphasis on broadband expansion at the forefront of its mission.
Tom Wheeler, a chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), was a keynote speaker and told the crowd that the FCC is focused on boosting internet speeds throughout Appalachia.
“Coal was the most important commodity in centuries past, said Wheeler. “High-speed broadband is the most important commodity of the 21st century.”
Rogers agreed. In his closing remarks, the congressman reiterated his desire to push the region forward by all means necessary. He also said he’s now confident with Bevin as his co-chair, after some initial anxiety during the change in administration.
“This is the new interstate highway system in my book,” said Rogers. “Silicon Holler is now open for business.”
©2016 The Daily Independent (Ashland, Ky.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.