On Monday, Aug. 31, Kentucky leaders kicked off their plans to roll out broadband Internet service throughout the state as part of a three-year public-private partnership.
Implementing the KentuckyWired I-Way broadband project is slated to cost the state and its private-sector partners an estimated $324 million in coming years, but officials are willing to pay the price to bring the state up to connectivity snuff and increase its competitive edge.
The project, originally introduced in late 2014, is being heralded as a huge step toward bringing affordable Internet service to the populated portions of the state, many of which stand without rural access, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) 2015 Broadband Progress Report.
In fact, Kentucky lists its current national ranking at 47th in broadband availability with around 23 percent of the state’s rural population completely without access. The service gap was widened even further when the FCC announced new broadband speed standards in January 2015.
At the Monday unveiling in Hazard County, Gov. Steve Beshear said the effort would be a vital part of bringing jobs and opportunities to the region. In December 2014, Beshear called connectivity in the modern age “as essential to a community as water or electricity” and acknowledged the state’s connectivity deficit.
“When finished, more than 3,000 miles of new fiber will be in place with access in every county across our commonwealth, making this infrastructure project unlike any seen in Kentucky over the last 50 years,” he said in late 2014. “This broadband network will leapfrog Kentucky’s current experience with dismal and slow speeds to give us some of the best service in the entire nation.”
Along with Rep. Hal Rogers and other stakeholders, the governor kicked off the public-private partnership to the people of Kentucky.
“The potential for every Kentuckian to tap into the global economy, compete for higher paying jobs, collaborate with researchers across the globe, take classes online, or access increased medical care make KentuckyWired one of the most important infrastructure projects in our state’s history," he said in a press release. "While KentuckyWired is starting in the east, this network will cover approximately 3,400 miles across the state to bring badly needed Internet access closer to all our communities."
Pamela Trautner, spokesperson for the Kentucky Finance and Administration Cabinet, said the project has been on an aggressive path since discussions began in fall 2014.
Originally state leaders were looking to improve broadband connections in the eastern portion of Kentucky, but quickly outlined the substantial need in other parts of the state as well, Trautner said
“The last several rankings, we’ve been the bottom state or next to the bottom state,” she said. “A lot of our urban areas were fine, it’s just truly the rural areas of the state that have not had good access.”
As it stands, roughly $53.5 million in state and federal funding is going toward the more than $320 million project. In a press release, the state announced other funding would come from its various consortium partners.
Australian company Macquarie Capital will manage the system for a 30-year period, but the state will retain ownership. The partnership between the state and industry is essential to the completion of the project by 2018, the governor said.
“If we were to rely solely on state government funding to get this project off the ground, it would take years, if not decades. Those kinds of tax dollars just aren’t available,” Beshear said in the press release. “Today we are celebrating how fast we’ve been able to put this project together by working with the private sector.”
During the Monday press conference, Earl Gohl, the federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission, said the ambitious undertaking was a step in the right direction in terms of connecting Kentucky entrepreneurs to the rest of the world.
“Today we are taking a huge step forward, just a giant step forward in terms of technology and meeting that challenge of making sure that our entrepreneurs are connected,” he said.
According to the KentuckyWired portal within the Kentucky Finance and Administration Cabinet website, construction is set to begin in the eastern portion of the state and along segments of Interstate 75. This leg of the project is expected to be complete by spring 2016, with the rest of the network project scheduled for completion by 2018.