The project to build a high-speed internet network across Kentucky has hit some delays and won’t be done nearly as soon as officials first announced, but it’s coming.
Officials with the state agency overseeing the project, the Kentucky Network Communications Authority, said at a meeting Thursday that progress continues on the KentuckyWired initiative.
There has been some construction, including installation of more than 225,000 feet of underground conduit, and the authority has signed agreements to attach fiber-optic cable for the network to 88 percent of the 78,000 utility poles needed.
About 85 percent of the 3,200 miles of cable for the network will be strung on utility poles owned by companies or utilities, with the rest buried.
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In addition, negotiations continue with private businesses to use their systems as part of the network. The state signed a deal with the Bluegrass Network at the meeting Thursday.
That will bring 315 miles of fiber in 21 counties into the network that otherwise would have been built as part of KentuckyWired, saving millions on the project, officials said.
It’s not clear when construction will be done and the network lit up in different areas, but the project will be completed, said Phillip Brown, executive director of the KCNA.
“The commitment to the project remains 100 percent” by Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration, Brown said.
The project is set up as a public-private partnership, with a private vendor building and running the network but the state owning it.
The state legislature approved $30 million for the project and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, arranged for $23.5 million from the Appalachian Regional Commission.
An Australian company, Macquarie Group, won the solicitation to build, operate and maintain the system for 30 years. It sold $270.9 million in bonds for the project, with Kentucky taxpayers obligated to make good on the debt.
A key piece of Macquarie’s return will be from selling internet service to hundreds of state-government sites, technical-college campuses and universities.
The project will provide an access point to the high-speed network in each county, but other providers will have to extend the service to individual homes and businesses — what’s called “last mile” service.
Supporters believe the network will have a historic impact on the state’s economy, helping businesses compete in a digital economy and improving education and health care.
There are currently gaps in availability of high-speed internet in the state. One federal official said at a June 2016 conference that 34 percent of houses in rural Kentucky could not access what the federal government defines as broadband — a download speed of 25 megabytes per second.
Officials first estimated the network would be up and running in Eastern Kentucky by April 2016.
After Bevin succeeded Steve Beshear as governor in December 2015, a push began to set up partnerships with private companies, telephone co-ops and others that already provide internet service. That contributed to some delay, but avoids duplication and saves money, officials said.
The deal with five service providers in Eastern Kentucky, for instance, saved an estimated $6.7 million in projected construction costs, the authority said earlier.
Some people object to government owning a service that private companies provide, but the authority is making every effort to involve businesses, Brown said.
Brown also said it took much longer than anticipated to negotiate agreements with pole owners to attach KentuckyWired cable, pushing back the construction timetable.
Also, a separate engineering drawing is required for each of the 70,000-plus poles where the cable will be attached, Brown said.
It may be possible to start stringing some cable on poles in the next three months, Brown said.
“We’re working to make up that ground,” he said.
Eastern Kentucky and the Lexington-Louisville-Northern Kentucky triangle are slated to be the first areas to complete the project. Construction in the Golden Triangle is critical to expansion in Eastern Kentucky because of connection points to the worldwide web, according to the authority.
The KCNA board approved Brown as the new head of the agency at Thursday’s meeting. He had been chief of staff at the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet.
Brown replaces Chris Moore, who left the job after less than a year.
The administration has not resolved a hole in the initial plan to pay the state’s obligation for the network.
Part of the revenue was to come from providing internet service to more than 170 public school districts. However, AT&T has a long-term contract to provide that service and didn’t want to give it up. That meant about $12 million was not available to pay Macquarie as planned.
In addition, the new system is not yet in place to generate revenue.
The legislature provided money to cover the debt payments to Macquarie in the 2016-2017 budget.