It is a welcome sign that Rep. Hal Rogers recognizes broadband deployment as the most important "highway" building we can undertake to improve the economy and our communities in East Kentucky.
Internet access has been identified by the United Nations as a basic human right. And as more everyday tasks, social interactions and economic activity move online, high-speed Internet is a public necessity.
Unfortunately, far too many mountain communities cannot use the Internet to its potential because of lack of network infrastructure, accessibility and affordability.
The private sector is not providing the Internet services we need.
With few providers, competition that could drive technological investment and lower prices is lacking. The giant telecommunications corporations that control much of the market are investing primarily in metropolitan areas where they can maximize profits.
AT&T and Verizon are actually pushing bills in the legislature that would eliminate their responsibility to provide basic landline phone service throughout the state without any enforceable commitment to invest in new, equally affordable technology. This would be another blow for East Kentucky consumers and businesses.
The bright spot has been the rural telephone and electric cooperatives — not-for-profit and member owned — that have sought federal stimulus money and are laying fiber optic cable to the home in places like Morgan, Menifee, Elliott and Wolfe Counties.
The Internet offers tremendous potential to diversify and build our economy, but we can't sit on the porch waiting for the day they get around to wiring us up. We need to find out why Internet speeds are slow, why service is expensive and why for some places it's non-existent. Then we need to push our state and federal representatives to act in the interests of Kentuckians, not telephone companies.
The Central Appalachia Regional Network, of which Appalshop is a part, surveyed telecommunications policies proposed and enacted in six Appalachian states and made a number of recommendations that could improve access:
■ Institutionalize broadband priorities in state government. A permanent legislative committee with staff and resources would help the state organize its efforts to improve broadband investments, infrastructure, and deployment. A permanent department within the executive branch could do similar work.
■ Provide state funding for broadband investments. Kentucky has done this successfully in the past. These programs need continuing financial support to help provide tax credits, subsidies, loans and grants to businesses that invest in broadband infrastructure and deployment as well as families who need help paying for broadband services.
■ Subject broadband and wireless technologies to regulation by the Kentucky Public Service Commission. This could ensure that consumers are protected against the lack of access, poor quality and high prices. A consumer bill of rights would ensure that customers are getting what they're paying for. This would be an important step toward holding telecommunication companies responsible.
■ Improve Internet adoption rates through digital literacy programs and subsidized access to computers for moderate and low-income families.
Mimi Pickering of Whitesburg directs Appalshop's Community Media Initiative.