Better broadband and digital training boost two rural counties in Kentucky

 

Last week the New Yorker ran in intersting story on the impact of getting better broadband to everyone in two rural counties in Kentucky. While it’s true that every rural county is unique, there are lessons to be learned from the ones who build a winning plan. First,  cooperative built broadband in a rural area…

The effort took six years, at a cost of fifty thousand dollars per mile. “Someone has to build to the last mile,” he said. “The big telecom companies aren’t going to do it, because it’s not economical and they have shareholders to answer to. We’re a co-op. We’re owned by our members. We answer to each other.” The grants they got, he said, were a matter of good timing and good luck. P.R.T.C. failed the first time it applied for stimulus money but got it on the second round, and with better terms than it had asked for originally. “One of the things we pitched was how impoverished our region was, how high our unemployment was, and how much this would help us,” Gabbard said. Even so, P.R.T.C. was initially five million dollars short of what it cost to wire the last, most remote residences with fibre-optic broadband; profits from Appalachian Wireless supplied the remaining capital that it needed to finish the job. “Our board and staff, we really wanted to do it all,” Gabbard said. “We wanted everyone to have the same thing.”

They worked on digital skills…

Once Jackson and Owsley Counties were wired, Gabbard was approached by the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program (ekcep), to see if they could use P.R.T.C.’s broadband to bring Internet-based jobs to the region. In 2015, Teleworks U.S.A., a job-training nonprofit, opened a branch in Jackson County. It is a collaboration between ekcep, the phone coöperative, and a number of other civic groups. P.R.T.C. supplies the hub with Internet connectivity and gives three months of free service to anyone who completes a workshop there. In nearly five years, it has created more than six hundred work-at-home jobs in the county. Participants learn enough basic computer skills to get placed at companies such as Hilton Hotels, Cabela’s, U-Haul, Harry & David, and Apple.

Shani Hays, who knew nothing about computers six months ago, is now fielding calls about iPads, AirPods, iPhones, and Apple Watches. “The training was really extensive and really, really hard,” she said. “There was all this technical stuff I knew nothing about, but I just kinda nickel-and-dimed my way through.” Hays has received two raises so far, and now earns more than fourteen dollars an hour. She will soon be eligible for health insurance, paid vacation time, and other benefits. Working at home saves her money, too. When we talked, she had a hard time remembering the last time she had to put gas in her car. “And there’s none of that stopping to get gas and driving away with a coffee and a candy bar and there goes another ten dollars,” she said.

Broadband seems wonky – but you see it or the impact of having or not having it everywhere…

“Rural broadband seemed wonkish to people for a long time, but they’re starting to see it in kitchen-table terms,” the F.C.C. commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel told me. “It doesn’t matter if you’re from red-state America or blue-state America—you’re going to want your kids to be able to do their homework and to succeed in the digital economy.” What this has meant, in real terms, is that the F.C.C. and a number of other federal agencies, most notably the U.S.D.A., now consider broadband to be infrastructure, just as roads and bridges were in the twentieth century. “We used to have to beat our way through policy doors to talk to people about our issues,” Bloomfield, of the Rural Broadband Association, told me. “Suddenly people are focussing on this in a bipartisan fashion.”

Candidates, too, have latched onto rural broadband, seeing it, perhaps, as a way to woo voters in the hinterlands. But it goes beyond the transactional business of electoral politics. The widening rural-urban digital divide is leaving behind whole swaths of the country, exacerbating educational and economic inequalities and thwarting innovations in agriculture. Elizabeth WarrenJoe BidenPete Buttigieg, and Tom Steyer have each offered plans to bridge the gap. Amy Klobuchar has been writing legislation to expand rural Internet services for years.

Broadband isn’t a panacea but it does help…

“I don’t think having broadband is necessarily going to make a five-hundred-job factory move in to Owsley, but it certainly can make people’s lives better and keep them from having to drive a hundred miles a day, back and forth, to work,” Keith Gabbard said. “You can’t make everybody magically go from making twenty-five thousand dollars a year to seventy-five thousand. Broadband is not going to create higher-paying jobs for everyone in the county. But it can help education. It can help entertainment. It can help the economy. It can help health care. And I even think that people’s mind-set—how they feel about themselves—can be improved just by not always saying ‘We don’t have nothing here.’ In this case, we have something to be proud of. We have something everyone else wants.”

This entry was posted in Rural by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

Librarian who follows rural broadband in MN and good uses of new technology (blandinonbroadband.org), hosts a radio show on MN music (mostlyminnesota.com), supports people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota (elimstrongtowershelters.org) and helps with social justice issues through Women’s March MN.

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