FRANKFORT — Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers announced Wednesday a $100 million plan to expand high-speed Internet access in the state, with the earliest emphasis to be on Eastern Kentucky.
"This world is growing more sophisticated and complex by the day. Kentucky needs to keep up," Beshear, a Democrat, said at a Capitol news conference with Rogers, a Republican from Somerset.
The plan will rely on $60 million from state bonds and $40 million from federal and privately raised funds, including a portion of $10 million that Congress approved last week for rural broadband Internet expansion through the federal Appalachian Regional Commission.
Sixty-seven percent of Kentucky homes had access to broadband Internet in 2012, compared with 73 percent nationally, according to a report released last year by the University of Kentucky Center for Business and Economic Research.
However, in only about two dozen Kentucky counties clustered around Lexington and other urban areas did at least 80 percent of homes have access to "nationally competitive" broadband speeds of at least 25 megabits per second for downloads. Most rural counties had sluggish, spotty broadband or none at all.
"It's slow. I mean, I don't know how you rate that exactly, but it's slow," Knott County Judge-Executive Zachary Combs Weinberg said in the coal-mining community of Hindman. "It seems like it kicks us off quite a bit — it freezes up — while you're trying to do something."
Broadband access to the Internet has replaced dial-up phone access in most areas. Broadband, wired or wireless, typically is defined as starting at 3 megabits per second for downloads, although that barely is adequate for email, and it's nowhere near enough to stream video.
The first phase of broadband expansion under Beshear's plan could take as long as three years to lay nearly 3,000 miles of fiber infrastructure above and below ground, including about 600 miles in Eastern Kentucky. The state Finance and Administration Cabinet will work with the Center for Rural Development in Somerset and private consultants who are being selected, Beshear said.
Government has to take the lead in connecting sparsely populated areas because it's not profitable for communications companies, he said.
Beshear and Rogers are making the project part of their shared Shaping Our Appalachian Region, or SOAR, initiative. At a Pikeville SOAR summit in December attended by more than 1,700 people, lack of high-speed broadband access frequently was cited as an impediment to economic development, Rogers said.
With high-speed broadband, students can engage in long-distance learning and virtual field trips, patients can get remote medical diagnoses, and businesses swiftly can sell their goods and interact with the outside world, the politicians said. Without it, most communities won't even be considered by companies looking to move or expand, they said.
Some of the best-paying jobs in the modern economy, such as software developer and engineer, are impossible without high-speed Internet access.
"This could be game-changing," said Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, contacted later by phone.
"So much of the economic development strategy out here has revolved around taking things out, like coal, around extraction industries," Davis said. "If they actually put an Internet backbone into the region, it gives us a chance to create our own businesses and industries. It gives us a chance to only be limited by our own imaginations."
The Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, warned in a 2012 report that the U.S. is being divided between "Internet haves" and "Internet have-nots," with much of rural America getting left behind. In comparisons of rural counties, those with high-speed broadband have shown higher wage growth, better job creation and more locally owned businesses than those without, the report said.
"The Internet has lowered the bar to starting a business to sell goods or services," wrote the report's author, Hanns Kuttner. "Thanks to search engines, anyone with a product to sell and a website to promote it has access to the national market. Physical proximity is not important when selling via the Web. Broadband access is."