Census Data Shows Broadband Linked With Income, Geography

The U.S. Census accounted for population size, geographical and income limitations when they surveyed Kentucky's access to broadband and found that those were contributing factors to the state's broadband issues.

by Jacob Dick, Messenger-Inquirer / December 28, 2018

(TNS) — A recent U.S. Census Bureau report shows Internet service subscriptions still lag in local rural communities in Kentucky, but the barrier to access might not just be population-based.

Each year, the bureau uses its American Community Survey estimates to track Internet subscription rates on a county-by-county basis, but this year's report also factored in geography and income. Summaries of the data split counties into mostly urban, mostly rural and completely rural communities.

Daviess County led in broadband service subscriptions with a range of 85 to 100 percent access, trailed by Hancock, Ohio and McLean counties in the 65 to 74.9 percent range. Muhlenberg County ranked between 55 and 64.9 percent of households that subscribed to a broadband service.

The report posted that more urban counties have higher subscription rates on average, but the Green River Area Development District has tried to bridge the gap with an initiative to bring access to rural communities.

Al Mattingly, Daviess County judge-executive and chair of the ConnectGRADD board, said the rural Internet cooperative was created because the leaders of regional counties recognized private broadband providers probably wouldn't invest in their communities anytime soon.

"ConnectGRADD was conceived to take Internet into areas that typically wouldn't be looked at by for-profit companies," Mattingly said. "If you have one to two houses on a road that is five miles long, that isn't attractive. A company isn't going to invest in something that doesn't have ... revenue attached."

ConnectGRADD, now facilitated by a contractor under the Q Wireless banner, was funded by a contribution of coal severance money from GRADD's coal counties.

Mattingly said the Internet service's customer base swelled to about 4,500 at one point, but has since dropped as demands from customers have increased.

"Governments are hamstrung by the money and capital equipment needed to expand service and speed," Mattingly said. "At the time, 250K speeds were normal because people weren't using it to stream movies. Now it isn't unusual to have 3 or 4 MEG uplink and 10 or 15 MEG downloads."

Mattingly said the board of ConnectGRADD recently voted to reinvest a reserve of revenue from a surcharge to improve the network's equipment, but money is always a barrier for connection in rural communities.

According to the report, counties with a median household income above $50,000 outpace subscriptions in counties with a lower income by almost 10 percent in every geographic category. The income gap can even effect connection rates within certain segments of the same metropolitan area.

Thanks to some intervention from government programs, private companies are being encouraged to add investment to communities that might not be able to garner attention otherwise.

During a conference at the Greater Owensboro Chamber of Commerce in August, AT&T Kentucky President Hood Harris said the company planned on using AT&T's existing fiber connections and additional cellular towers to deliver increased access with fixed antennas by 2020. AT&T's plans are a part of its commitment with the FCC Connect America Fund, a program under the Federal Communications Commission that offers incentivizing subsidies to communication companies for expanding service to select rural areas.

"There is middle-mile fiber out there, folks," Harris said during the conference. "The challenge is getting that last mile connection to people's doors, especially in rural areas. The answer to that challenge is often technology."

©2018 the Messenger-Inquirer (Owensboro, Ky.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.