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In rural Kentucky, a battle to provide reliable internet

An ambitious project to create an "internet interstate" in impoverished Kentucky. But will it work?

Kentucky is working on a public/private partnership to provide internet to some of it's most rural areas (Graphics Credit: Diana Ofosu)
Kentucky is working on a public/private partnership to provide internet to some of it's most rural areas (Graphics Credit: Diana Ofosu)

At first, Matthew Childers’ story sounds like just another broken American Dream.

After high school, the Kentucky native followed in his father’s footsteps by working in the coal mines. After he got laid off, he struggled over the years with alcohol and drug addiction.

Then, Childers finally had a stroke of luck. While browsing Facebook, he saw an advertisement for a job program with a company he’d never heard of: Teleworks USA, offering competitive pay and letting him to work from home for the customer service company Kelly Connect.

“It’s been an absolute blessing,” he said in a recent interview, adding that the pay, for the region, is extremely competitive and offers him a chance to quickly move up the ladder and make the job a career.

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Teleworks USA is an initiative run by the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program (EKCEP), a non-profit workforce development agency, that gives residents the opportunity to work in customer service or technical support for companies like U-Haul, Amazon, and Hilton Hotels. In a state which ranks 38th in the country in pay  and where nearly 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, Teleworks USA offers an attractive option.

There’s just one problem. In order to work for Teleworks, you need access to a resource that is scarce in eastern Kentucky — fast, reliable internet.  

“Teleworks wants a minimum of 10 megabits download speed, and just finding a provider here is challenging,” Childers said.  “To have this type of job, it’s essential to have high-speed connectivity,” he added. “To satisfy the customer, you have to rely on a strong connection.” 

Looking at the FCC’s breakdown of broadband provision in Kentucky, it’s easy to understand Childers’ WiFi grievances.

In eastern Kentucky’s Hancock and Lyon counties, for instance, 80 percent of the population does not have a single broadband provider. Another 16 of the state’s 120 counties have just one broadband provider. In another 43 counties, less than 50 percent of the population has access to more than one provider. 

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“Sometimes my son has to go to McDonald’s for WiFi,” Childers said. “I’ve had to sit in gas stations to get emails.”

Childers’ everyday struggle to access the internet may come as a shock to people in better connected parts of the United States, but it’s a problem that extends beyond eastern Kentucky to large swaths of America, from West Virginia to Mississippi. 

Rust Belt communities hoping to replace jobs lost in the dying steel and coal industries need infrastructure that will encourage innovation, investment, and entrepreneurship. One of the most crucial components of this infrastructure is affordable, reliable, high-speed internet. 

Huge disparities between the states

For the most part, U.S. fixed broadband speeds are better than most other countries. An April 2018 index by content delivery network Akami rated U.S. internet speeds ninth in the world, with an average speed of 18.7 megabits per second (mps), ahead of the Netherlands, Norway, and Canada.

But that national ranking hides massive disparities between states that are wealthy and urban, and those that are poorer and rural.

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Washington, D.C. has the country’s fastest internet speeds, with an average of 28.1 mps, followed by Delaware, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Maryland.  Towards the bottom of the rankings are Idaho and New Mexico — two states with the worst internet speeds, barely reaching two-thirds of the U.S. average.

The next lowest-ranked states, Mississippi, Arkansas, Kentucky, and West Virginia, are also among the poorest states in the nation. Experts say that’s not a coincidence.

“When we go to rural communities, we see percentages as high as 42 percent without real broadband connectivity. We see in Native nations, figures as high as 35 percent,” Mignon Clyburn, a former member of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), told ThinkProgress. “When you look at those communities — particularly those rural communities which happen to be economically challenged —  we see rates that I think will defy logic.”       

If anyone is qualified to talk about how lack of internet access can exacerbate poverty, it’s Clyburn. The 56-year-old South Carolina native, who spent eight years on the FCC before stepping down this May, was a staunch advocate for net neutrality.  She also supported a number of other policies designed to help low-income or marginalized groups, like capping per-minute rates on long distance phone calls from prison inmates to their friends and families.

In an interview with ThinkProgress, Clyburn outlined just how a lack of good, affordable internet can keep underprivileged communities trapped in poverty.

“No matter what you do, no matter what your need is, from being a student to applying for government aid, students loans, whatever it is that you do… it is necessary for you to have an online presence,” Clyburn said. “Because in today’s society, being without means you will do without.”

And, conversely, access to reliable broadband, can be a career game changer. Even with his limited internet service in Kentucky, Childers says he and his family no longer have to live paycheck to paycheck. He’s currently enrolled in college, studying for an associate’s degree in science, and has hopes of eventually pursuing a career in medicine or physical therapy.

Whether his story can be replicated throughout Kentucky depends on how quickly broadband can be expanded. Too often, limited internet availability has been a roadblock preventing good jobs from coming to economically depressed, rural areas.

“What you need is first for WiFi to be stronger and more available and second, you need more of these types of [remote work] companies to come into Kentucky,” Childers told ThinkProgress.  “If it becomes accessible, it opens up the door.”

Jared Arnett, executive director of Shaping Our Appalachia Region (SOAR), a group dedicated to expanding job opportunities in the area, said he knows of  “budding entrepreneurs who can’t upload videos online.”

“Everywhere we went, it was a recurring theme that we need increased access to available and affordable broadband,” Arnett told ThinkProgress.

One internet provider, or sometimes none 

One reason for the dearth of reliable internet in many rural areas is a chronic lack of investment by Big Telecom. If you look, for instance, at the FCC’s map of fixed residential broadband providers by state, a pattern quickly emerges: Urban areas have access to multiple broadband providers, whereas rural areas like eastern Kentucky and portions of West Virginia sometimes have have one provider, or none at all.

The FCC’s map may actually have understated the problem: More than two dozen US senators recently signed a letter urging the agency to correct “significant flaws”  in current map, which would be used to determine how the FCC distributes more than $4.5 billion of rural broadband support. The lawmakers said the map showed areas which were supposedly covered by 4G wireless internet, when experience on the ground proved otherwise

More evidence of the lack of investment in rural internet can be seen in 2016 a report from Economists Incorporated, which found that 10.6 million U.S. households don’t have access to broadband with download speeds of at least 25 mps (megabits per second). An additional 46.1 million households live in areas with just one provider offering those speeds.

Part of the problem, Arnett said, is that there are real economic disincentives to private companies making capital improvements needed to expand broadband in rural areas.

“Most times, there’s not even enough demand for one provider to justify capital investment up front,” he said. “The reality is that there is no way to build this network outside public/private partnership. When it’s left continually up to (the) private sector, they’re going to make their investment in more urban areas.”

Kentucky offers a stark example of the way that a lack of reliable internet exacerbates a host of other poverty-related problems. According to the 2016 census, the state’s median household income is roughly $11,000 less than the U.S. average. In the 2017 America’s Health Ranking, Kentucky was ranked the 42nd healthiest state in the U.S., and nearly a third of the U.S’s poorest counties were located in eastern Kentucky.  

“The massive jobs shortage we’re facing here, you can’t repair it through traditional forms of economic development,” Arnett said. “It’s going to take this type of disruptive thinking to truly think outside the box.”  

“KentuckyWired”

The type of creative thinking Arnett was referring to is at the heart of a plan called “KentuckyWired” an ambitious effort to create a “internet interstate” using fiber-optic cable.

The project, which was first introduced in 2015 by Rep. Hal Rodgers (R-KY) and former Gov. Steve Beshear (D-KY), is a public-private partnership with the aim of improving internet speeds and broadening service options in rural communities. The initial goal is to install more than 3,000 miles of cable across the state by mid-2019

“It’s about the end goal of delivering more options to consumers who tell me ‘I need an option with a higher speed and a lower price’,” Grace Simrall, the chief of civic innovation and technology for the city of Louisville, told ThinkProgress, who said  “mid-sized Internet Service Providers are very interested.

In June of last year, Louisville approved a plan to build its own fiber optic cable through the city and the surrounding Jefferson County — a plan that was met with resistance from the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, a Koch-funded group that said they “don’t consider a core government function to be providing broadband.”

Not just a rural problem

While KentuckyWired is more focused on rural areas, its partnership with Louisville shows that even major urban centers in Kentucky can suffer from chronic internet sluggishness.

“[The problems KentuckyWired is trying to solve] are true of rural areas but they’re also true of urban areas,” Simrall said. “Until Google Fiber, we had two [internet provider options] and neither were particularly attractive.” 

Chris Kenning, Simrall’s colleague at the Louisville Department of Civic Innovation and Technology, described the impact of sluggish internet on the city of Louisville. He said that people will regularly gather outside community centers in order to take advantage of their free WiFi, for instance. When Louisville’s fire stations started offering free WiFi, a captain called and asked for it to be removed because so many cars were parked outside the stations, blocking exits. According to Kenning, for people working in medical research, it was actually faster for them to mail each other hard-drives then to transfer files over the internet.

“The infrastructure of having a digital highway, it’s just like having the highways and railroads of tomorrow,” Simrall said. “It gives competitive advantages to a city. We look at what happened to cities [in the past] that didn’t have highways or electricity.”

At a time when ISPs like Verizon and Comcast are poised to take control of more of the internet thanks to the repeal of net neutrality, and when Big Tech corporations are on shaky ground due to repeated violations of trust, the idea of a grassroots government initiative like KentuckyWired, aiming to boost smaller companies’ ability to provide internet, sounds like a welcome change. But the project has already faced multiple setbacks.

Slow progress, inflated costs

So far, it’s been slow going for the ambitious project, which has only installed 708 of the 3,400 miles of cable needed, costing the private companies building the network nearly $90 million. Part of the problem is that Kentucky is having to negotiate with various utilities and electric companies to secure the use of telephone poles, making implementation a painfully slow process. Add to that the state’s difficult topography, and the program’s expected cost of $324 million now has ballooned to $500 million — a financial burden that will be borne by Kentucky taxpayers.

Naturally, the delays and cost overruns have infuriated many within the state government. House Republican Whip Kevin Bratcher has said that the project resembles “something Tony Soprano would have his fingers in.” And in January, the state auditor, Mike Harmon, launched an investigation into KentuckyWired, according to the Associated Press. While the investigation is not an official audit, Harmon said in a letter that the “full scope and extent of the examination procedures will depend on where the data leads.” 

The leader of the Kentucky House of Representatives in late April also has called for a separate investigation into cost overruns at KentuckyWired.  “The state, specifically the taxpayers, need to know the details behind the contract for Kentucky Wired and the specifics concerning delays and additional costs to date, in an impartial and unbiased manner,” House Speaker Pro Tempore David Osborne (R) said. “Allegations and innuendo have swirled concerning this contract and the intentions behind it.”

To make matters worse, officials estimate that it would cost an estimated $500 million for Kentucky to pull out of the project and also cripple the state’s credit rating, which has already been downgraded from A+ to A, thanks to a combination of poverty and poor fiscal management. The withdrawal costs effectively leave Kentucky in a bind to continue with the project for the moment — but not without plenty of criticism.

“If what’s happening with KentuckyWired happened in the private sector, there would be consequences,” State Rep. Lynn Bechler (R) said in April. “Unfortunately the state is still on the hook for what might have been a bad agreement… These are very big numbers that taxpayers are footing, for no return on investment so far.”

A sign of progress?

Whether KentuckyWired gets completed and ultimately leads to improved internet speeds or if it gets derailed and is forever viewed as a case study for bungled government bureaucracy, remains to be seen. For optimists, however, the mere fact that a state as traditionally Republican and conservative as Kentucky was willing to take the initiative in moving away from Big Telecom’s monopoly is a sign of progress.

“Kentucky recognized that there were too many have-nots in their state when it comes to broadband services,” Clyburn said. “We will await the report that will say what happened right or what happened wrong but I cannot fault those leaders for recognizing we have a problem here, the private industry alone will not solve it and that that calls for a public-private partnership to address those needs. I don’t want to sound flippant, but not every story has a happy ending.”

Even some of the project’s local proponents are vowing to keep fighting for better internet, regardless of KentuckyWired’s eventual outcome. “I think it was just started with the best of intentions but there are a lot of unknowns; I know everyone’s frustrated that it’s behind,” SOAR’s Jared Arnett said. “Broadband is critical, that’s for sure. If KentuckyWired comes to fruition, it’s a huge asset. If it doesn’t, we’ll find another way to do it.”    

What the KentuckyWired project does show, from the tech experts involved in its implementation to the local activists trying to bring new jobs to the state, is that some communities are willing to go the extra mile to implement the internet infrastructure rural America needs and Big Telecom companies have been unwilling or unable to provide.