Robert W. Shaffer: E.Ky. needs education, jobs the Internet can bring

September 1, 2014 

  • At issue: Aug. 11 Tom Eblen column, "Expert: Better broadband vital for E. Ky. job growth; But other factors are causes for optimism"

Tom Eblen's excellent Aug. 11 column on the importance of better broadband to job growth in Eastern Kentucky and his Aug. 18 column on very slow internet connection speeds across the state were powerful wake-up calls.

In the 1960s many state and federal officials believed that improved highways would open the door to industrial expansion in Appalachia. John Whisman, founding father of the Appalachian Regional Commission, with its strong emphasis on road building, once wrote: "What east Kentucky needs is one good road to join us up with the rest of the country."

During its most active years, ARC was responsible for the construction of hundreds of miles of roads, but in many cases the new and improved roads simply increased travel away from rural communities to the attractions of larger growth centers, further weakening the areas left behind.

Today, broadband-accessed Internet is a high-speed information superhighway.

It makes possible, for the first time, in-place information-based enterprises in outlying communities. The cost of extending this highway in Eastern Kentucky is miniscule compared with the cost of building roads and bridges. Whisman's words, slightly revised, make sense today: What east Kentucky needs is one good high-speed Internet highway to join us with the rest of the country.

While a highway in itself does not do anything, it does make possible countless valuable enterprises. How it is used determines its value, just as the Internet in a home can be used to download trash or to participate in a new online curriculum. Effective training on how to take maximum advantage of the Internet is critical.

Improved internet service and speed of access are essential to the economic development of Eastern Kentucky. In Kentucky, we have narrow country roads, wider two-lane highways and four-lane interstates with a maximum speed of 70 mph. On average, the current Internet connection speed in Kentucky compares to the driving speed on a narrow, winding country road.

What we should be shooting for is the equivalent of Germany's autobahn that has no federally mandated speed limit. This will require broadband.

High-speed Internet service offers the people of Eastern Kentucky an opportunity to develop an economy that is not dependent on enticing existing businesses to locate here.

For a long time people interested in the economic development of Eastern Kentucky believed that the answer was attracting businesses to set up shop here. After spending five years attempting unsuccessfully to help one county to do just that, I concur with Education and Workforce Development official Ron Crouch's opinion that the long-term prospects for industrial development are not good. To the contrary, the prospects for information-based enterprises are promising.

National media have done an enormous disservice to Eastern Kentucky.

For example, the television coverage provided by Dianne Sawyer's 20/20 report gave the impression that the region is populated predominately with prescription drug addicts living in filthy mobile homes surrounded by trash. This is so far from the truth it is ridiculous.

There are many people and places in Eastern Kentucky who would fit comfortably in numerous mainstream suburbs. The majority of the mountain poor who make up a substantial segment of the population do not fit the stereotypes either. When given the opportunity, they have demonstrated the capacity to contribute to the general welfare and to prepare for and function in the new high-tech environment.

The globally connected Internet allows small businesses to thrive, selling goods and services worldwide, even in the smallest towns of America. The Internet also provides educational opportunities that would otherwise be out of reach, including free online courses from non-profits, such as Kahn Academy, leading to online degree programs.

When Kentucky decides to build and support the Internet high-speed highway and enlists knowledgeable volunteers of all ages, from inside and outside the area, to assist communities to take advantage of the benefits opened by this new technology, it will empower the entire region.

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