"Broadband can be the great enabler that restores America's economic well-being and opens doors of opportunity for all Americans to pass through, no matter who they are, where they live, or the particular circumstances of their individual lives." — Federal Communications Commissioner Michael Copps
There is a debate heating up in Washington about broadband that is critical to Kentucky's future prosperity. At issue is the Federal Communications Commission's ambitious plan for universal adoption of high-speed Internet, or "broadband," as a key to driving economic development, job creation, educational opportunity, effective health care and global competitiveness throughout the country.
In order to implement this National Broadband Plan, the FCC proposes reclassifying a number of broadband services under the same common carrier provisions that have enabled over 95 percent of American households to receive and afford phone service.
The big cable and phone companies, who are the primary Internet service providers, and their friends in Congress object to the FCC's move to increase competition, protect consumers and preserve an open Internet.
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In Kentucky, we need the FCC's National Broadband Plan. With only 54 percent of Kentucky households receiving high-speed Internet at home, and 49 percent in rural areas, we rank 45th among the states. The unregulated, market-driven approach to providing broadband has not worked for us. Too many Kentuckians are on the wrong side of the digital divide because high-speed Internet is not available, not affordable or they lack digital literacy skills.
Over 150 families living at the foot of Pine Mountain where Letcher, Harlan and Leslie counties converge are an example of the more than 1 million Kentuckians who could benefit from the National Broadband Plan.
They know from their own experiences that high-speed Internet access is critical to their success in today's economy and society. Although they organized Pine Mountain Residents for Broadband to speak out about the problem and collectively seek solutions, they remain unable to receive service.
As a result, the community's students struggle to graduate high school and earn college degrees using dial-up speeds that make finishing homework, downloading assignments, watching lectures and completing tests online almost impossible.
One woman running a small business can't order supplies she needs when home looking after her young child and loses customers as a result. A local teacher stays long hours after school in order to file grading and attendance information that must be entered online.
Although two companies advertise high-speed Internet and provide it within a mile of some families, they are not making the service available. A company spokesperson stated in an e-mail that "the costs are often prohibitive to earn back the investment at affordable rates for customers."
Affordability is a significant barrier for people in both rural and urban areas of Kentucky. Nationally, only a third of people whose families make less than $25,000 a year have home broadband. A 2009 study by the University of Louisville's Anne Braden Institute for Social Justice Research found that, in three predominately African-American, low-income neighborhoods in Louisville, 91 percent of respondents used the Internet, but only 45 percent had broadband access at home.
That means many low-income residents have been relying on Internet services at the city's public libraries, facilities that are reducing operating hours because of budget cuts.
Kentucky policy-makers have called for increased access to broadband technology as a way to boost the state's economic competitiveness, raise earning capacities and reduce our high poverty levels. The FCC's reclassification of broadband services will allow implementation of the National Broadband Plan and give us a road map and resources for moving all Kentuckians forward in the 21st century. We need to support this effort.
Mimi Pickering is a filmmaker based in Whitesburg. Find out more about the National Broadband Plan at http://www.broadband.gov/.