When Dr. Pamela Graber traveled in Uzbekistan and Turkey, she was surprised to find fast, reliable Internet connections. She just wishes she could get that kind of service at her home, 20 miles from Kentucky's State Capitol building.
"I sit here and wait for things to come up" on the screen, said Graber, an emergency physician who lives in the Beaver Lake area of Anderson County.
She and neighbors have petitioned a major Internet provider in their area for service, with no luck. So they use a satellite dish service. With data charges, Graber's monthly bill is more than $100 — much higher than she pays for excellent service in Florida, where she lives and works each winter.
Slow Internet is just annoying for Graber and her husband, Melvin Wilson, but it's a serious problem for two neighbors who have home-based online jobs. "When there's a wind storm, they can't work," she said.
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"Internet's the main infrastructure we're going to need to work in the future," Graber said. "It's going to be a huge issue."
It already is. Akamai Technologies' quarterly State of the Internet report last week highlighted Kentucky — and not in a good way. It said that Alaska has the nation's worst average Internet connection speed, at 7.0 megabits per second, but that Kentucky, Montana and Arkansas are almost as bad, at 7.3 Mbps.
By comparison, 26 states have average connection speeds of 10 Mbps or higher, which is now considered a minimum by tech-savvy homeowners. The fastest average speeds are above 13 Mbps in Virginia, Delaware and Massachusetts.
Kentucky also was near the bottom of the list when it came to improvement of average speeds over the past year. And when Akamai measured states' "readiness" for ultra-high definition (4k) video streaming, Kentucky was dead last.
"Embarrassing" is how Brian Kiser described the report. He is executive director of the Commonwealth Office of Broadband Outreach and Development, and I called to ask him why Kentucky is so far behind.
"Our broadband speeds are left up to the providers, and I'm not sure the providers are investing enough in infrastructure," said Kiser, who takes between three and 10 calls a day from citizens wanting help with Internet service.
Other studies rank Kentucky 46th nationally in broadband availability, with 23 percent of state residents having no access at all.
Part of the issue is a chicken-and-egg problem. Virtually all of Kentucky's Internet providers are private companies, which are reluctant to invest in infrastructure if they can't see a potential return on their investment. Providers usually want at least a dozen customers per mile in rural areas. "The problem is that 10 minutes outside our biggest cities, it's rural," Kiser said.
Kentucky has one of the nation's lowest demand rates for home Internet, at 60 percent or so. "Surveys show people say either it's too expensive or they don't see a need for it," he said.
(It's worth noting that Kentucky has a high adoption rate for smartphones. Kiser said that's because smartphones can be a more economical way for poor people to meet many needs: phone, Internet, camera, entertainment — especially in rural areas underserved by broadband.)
Kiser said his office has partnered with Community Action Kentucky to build 30 public Internet centers in rural parts of the state to encourage technology literacy and use. The centers have proven quite popular for résumé-writing and social media use. "We just want people to not be intimidated by it," he said.
Internet costs in Kentucky are comparable to neighboring states. But Internet all over the United States is much more expensive than in many other countries. "The real problem, I think, is we don't have enough competition," Kiser said.
Connected Nation, a national broadband advocacy group, says that improving Internet service requires a two-prong strategy: pushing Internet providers to offer better service, and making the public more technologically literate and savvy, so they will create the business demand for that better service.
Tom Ferree, the president of Connected Nation, said the states with the best Internet infrastructure are those that have had strong leadership on the issue at both state and local levels, plus a lot of grassroots advocacy.
Many states got a jump on Kentucky because they were well-positioned with "shovel ready" broadband expansion plans in 2009, when Congress and the Obama administration put about $7 billion in economic "stimulus" money into data network development.
But there might be more funding opportunities ahead, Ferree said. The Federal Communications Commission is changing policy to shift subsidies away from traditional telephone service to digital data networks. That could be a big opportunity for states that develop good broadband plans.
As an outgrowth of the bipartisan Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative, Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers have proposed a $100 million public-private effort to begin building a 3,000-mile, high-speed fiber optic network across Kentucky to connect with local Internet providers.
"I cannot emphasize enough the need for local planning and plan building," Ferree said. "I think that plan holds great promise. I hope Kentucky makes the most of it."