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Kentucky Officials Want Answers on Internet Initiative

The overarching goal of this roughly $324 million project is to provide an essential highway of an Internet network that commercial companies can connect to in order to build a “last-mile” stretch of Internet access.

by Jacob Mulliken, Messenger-Inquirer / October 11, 2019
Most of the bond debt small governments incur is for telecommunications projects, including expanding broadband access to rural Americans. Shutterstock

(TNS) — For a state that ranked 47th in the United States in broadband speeds and capacity, the KentuckyWired initiative sounded like a godsend.

However, as the project quickly approaches its October 2020 projected completion date, the question among many judge-executives throughout Western Kentucky is 'What happens next'?

While state officials and their myriad of private partners such as Macquarie Capital, Ledcor, Fujitsu Network Communications Inc. and Black & Veatch are pleased to have reined in a project that only a year ago was 35% over budget and solely counting on "speculative" revenues, according to a state auditor's report released on Sept. 27, 2018, judge-executives in the Green River Area Development District aren't holding their breath, said Daviess County Fiscal Court Judge-Executive Al Mattingly.

"I understand that it took them time to resolve the issues around right of way," he said. "They made an assumption and when it came time to begin their construction, that was not the case. I don’t think they will get everything done by this time next year, but that is just me watching the pace that government works and the pace that government and the public sector work together. This is a P3 (a project that involves partnerships between the private sector and government) and as far as I can tell, the government is doing all of the work."

The major issue is what rural communities are going to do with the middle-mile access once it is done, he said.

"The goal was that the 50% of the access goes to government agencies and state institutions," he said. "The other half of access is meant to be sold to private companies to make up for the debt and provide access to rural communities. The issue is that if the big boys wanted to be out in the rural communities providing service, they would be. They line up right and left to serve places like Owensboro, (but) do you think they will go up to Carpenter Lake to catch two dozen homes? No. It is a real issue concerning the rural areas of all of our counties. It doesn't do anyone any good to have an interstate that no one can get to. I hope it works."

The overarching goal of the roughly $324 million project is to provide an essential highway (middle-mile) of the internet network that commercial companies can connect to in order to build a "last-mile" stretch of access provided by an internet service provider to areas and communities that are often without reliable internet access. The major issue outside of the completion date, said Hancock County Fiscal Court Judge-Executive Johnny Roberts, is attracting providers.

"From a rural county perspective, we are concerned about if it is feasible for a business to come in and run fiber once the middle-mile comes in," he said. "There are last-mile providers (that) could do that, but it will be predicated on the cost. Certainly, that is a challenge for Hancock County specifically when there are only a few houses every couple of miles.

"It will come down to a business decision. To me, this is the water and the electrical conversation of our generation. If you don’t have reliable internet, our citizens are automatically behind. Everybody's a little bit skeptical. It is a wait-and-see, fingers-crossed deal for us," he said.

If the project does finish on time, then officials overseeing the commonwealth's rural communities will have to consider the elephant in the room -- cost, said Henderson County Fiscal Court Judge-Executive Brad Schneider.

"We are all concerned with the cost for the last mile," he said. "One of the things that concerns me most is that the public thinks that this is the solution to rural internet. It isn't. You still have to come to the last mile. For counties, it is an expensive proposition that requires some soul searching in investing and who we invest in. Some counties I know have taken it upon themselves to create their own provider. We aren’t ready yet. That may not be the best for us. The last mile is still a conundrum.

"I hope it reaches us. It is way over budget, so we will see. I will celebrate when I see it. Regardless, it will be seven figures plus for every county, and I know Henderson isn't ready, like many counties, to carry the whole bill."

©2019 the Messenger-Inquirer (Owensboro, Ky.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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