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Kentucky Officials Urge Partnerships for Internet Access

The state needs federal investment and the assistance of private businesses in order to expand broadband Internet in Kentucky, particularly for students, a group of current and former state officials said Monday.

by James Mayse, Messenger-Inquirer / August 4, 2020
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(TNS) — The state needs federal investment and the assistance of private businesses in order to expand broadband internet throughout Kentucky, particularly for students, a group of current and former state officials said Monday.

Access to broadband internet is hampered by geography and by the ability to pay, and the state will need assistance if broadband is going to be available to the majority of students, officials said Monday at a press conference held by Sen. Max Wise, a Campbellsville Republican, Wayne D. Lewis Jr., former state education commissioner, and Peter Hille, president of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development.

Officials told members of the media that while state government and private businesses have a role, they hope the U.S. Senate will provide money to expand internet access to students in a stimulus bill.

“It’s going to be local communities, local governments working with state and also our federal partners,” Wise said. “We are encouraging superintendents to reach out to our federal delegation in Kentucky to ask for money that’s going to be put into this next stimulus bill” for money for expanding internet access.

Jared Revlett, a spokesman for Owensboro Public Schools, said according to the last district survey, 12% of OPS students do not have access to the internet.

Aaron Yeiser, an instructional technology coordinator for Daviess County Public Schools, said 93.5% of DCPS homes have internet access, but that number may be a bit misleading because a family that has a cell phone with a hot spot and limited data might consider that as having internet access.

Technology “has changed the way we learn,” said Lewis, who is dean of Belmont University’s school of education. “With the coming of the pandemic, technology empowered us with the opportunity to continue learning,” even as schools shut their doors.

“Unfortunately, due to differences in connectivity, due to differences that prevent kids, depending on the region where they live to have access to the world wide web, we face the challenge of an even-widening technology gap,” he said, adding that the state faces a “potential widening of the achievement gap.”

Lewis said federal and state leaders need to “ensure there are appropriate funding and resources available … that we can provide access to the world wide web to kids regardless of where they live and regardless to region.”

Wise said Kentucky ranks 40th among states in terms of accessibility to the internet. He said with some schools going entirely to virtual learning and others adopting a combination of in-person and virtual learning, the state has to make sure remotely learning is competent, adequate and accessible.

“As we change as a country, Kentucky also has to be more accessible, to keep up with the other states,” he said.

Hille compared internet access to school buses, which were purchased by school districts because “we understand there’s a vast public good” in making sure kids can get an education.

“Today, we are talking about the modern school bus,” Hille said.

While KentuckyWired was established to build 3,000 miles of fiber optic cable across the state for high-speed internet, the system is not intended to connect with individual homes, Hille said. The idea behind KentuckyWired is that commercial internet providers will build off the system to expand services into unserved areas.

KentuckyWired “was never intended to reach the last mile,” or every unserved home, Hille said, adding that he is an advocate for service providers to “turn on the internet” for people who can’t connect because of cost.

Doing so would lead to more customers for commercial providers, Hille said. “Those who can continue to pay should do so.”

Beyond education, the pandemic has permanently changed the way business is conducted.

“We’ll never go back to the pre-COVID era” where people traveled for meetings, Hille said.

“I think we are in a place in 2020 where we are going to have to think about internet access the way we think about access to electricity,” Lewis said.

Wise said, “we don’t need to think of this as always an Appalachian issue.” People without internet due to geography or inability to pay can be found across the state.

Partnerships between Kentucky and the federal government are needed, Lewis said.

“This is not something states like Kentucky are going to take on on their own.”

©2020 the Messenger-Inquirer (Owensboro, Ky.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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