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Southeast Kentucky to See $30M Broadband Push

U.S. Congressman Hal Rogers announced a $30.7 million grant to expand broadband services across the most rural parts of the state. Rogers said the infrastructure is a necessary part of building Kentucky’s answer to Silicon Valley.

(TNS) — A $30.7 million grant will make southeast Kentucky a center of technology — and inevitably economic development — long lacking in the region.

U.S. Congressman Hal Rogers announced the expanded broadband services across the most rural regions of southeastern Kentucky in a special gathering of local officials on Monday morning at the London Community Center. Rogers touted the money as the information highway desperately needed to enhance educational, social and economic opportunities to the areas that are currently unserved.

Rogers has described this venture in Kentucky as comparative to Silicon Valley which is considered the hubbub of technology for California.

"Broadband is our modern-day highway and we're building Silicon Holler. Once complete, this project will encompass 124-miles of fiber, which I like to call the Super I-Way," Congressman Rogers said. "We are part of an exciting time for our region, paving this new information highway that will benefit future generations."

The counties benefiting from this new venture include Laurel, Pulaski, Whitley, Bell, Knox, Rockcastle, Boyd, Bath, Carter, Garrard, Letcher, Lincoln, Martin, Rowan, Russell and McCreary counties.

The project will provide broadband access to approximately 33,000 homes across 16 counties and 195 communities in Southern and Eastern Kentucky.

Lonnie Lawson, President and CEO of The Center for Rural Development in Somerset, said the project will place 15 more wireless towers in the 16-county area as well as 40 additional towers. Lawson said many of the services will operate from existing towers but construction of new towers will also be part of the project.

"We'd like to have all of it underground, but the topography of the area has mountains and rock that would increase the costs of up to $100,000 a mile," he said. "We need to have affordable — and I want to make that point of 'affordable' — to the unserved and the underserved people of southeastern Kentucky."

Lawson said seeing broadband availability to south and eastern Kentucky has been a priority for the Center for Rural Development.

Kentucky Senate President Robert Stivers said broadband service would benefit the state economically, especially since the population loss after the coal industry slowed down.

"It's a really big deal because it is something that could be a replacement," Stivers said. "We can attract and keep jobs here and we need it. You look at different things going on in healthcare, education and business. It means a lot to have access to high speed Internet."

Stivers added that Internet is harder to get in the mountainous areas as well as making it affordable to that population.

State Representative Tom Odell Smith said the importance of fiber in his district is for educational purposes.

"I think a lot of our kids are just now learning about computers, IT, and communication," Smith said. "A lot of it came out during COVID. We had illustrations of kids coming out to Walmart so they could get Wi-Fi. That sounds discouraging but it's encouraging that they wanted it."

Smith said that legislators in Frankfort had been "challenged" on how to provide broadband services to the many areas in eastern and southern Kentucky that are not currently being served.

"By utilizing the Center for Rural Development in Somerset, they actually understand our area," he added. "When you go to Frankfort, it's divided. They worry about the Golden Triangle — they worry about Louisville, Lexington, northern Kentucky. But when it comes down to the Center, when it comes down to Congressman Rogers — he understands the area. He knows what a holler is. He knows there's families that need this."

Lawson said the funding would build new fiber and build additional towers in remote areas, calling it "cabinets" where providers can hook into the service. He credited Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) for their assistance in the project, which is also funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"What we did was utilize a speed test and look at the really unserved areas, not underserved, but unserved areas. We looked at the 45 counties and these are the most unserved counties," he explained.

During COVID, many people were required to work from home, adding even more emphasis on the need for broadband services in rural areas. That number decreased once the pandemic eased but the opportunity for more live streaming, Zoom and other technology based services continues to grow.

Lawson said some areas could receive service within six months, although all of the identified areas could be served within 18 months.

The cost of that service had to remain affordable, and Lawson said the cost would range around $50 to $60 per month. He added that households wishing to add more gigabytes could do so for additional fees, but that the basic service would remain in the same range as in other areas.

The broadband service for unserved areas will be a benefit in the following areas: Empowering education, driving economic growth, enhancing healthcare services, fostering community connectivity and unlocking innovation and creativity.

Also speaking were Brad Kilbey, President and CEO of project partner Accelecom Communications, who said he heard about the needs for broadband weekly from his wife, who is a teacher. Kilbey said providing broadband to students and families in south and eastern Kentucky was an incentive to their future.

Colby Hall, President of SOAR, said the area was "celebrating more money and more broadband" to the area, an issue that has been addressed by the Kentucky General Assembly for years. The grant is the compilation of efforts from legislators in the area.

©2023 The Times-Tribune, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.