Business

Broadband program making inroads

A century ago, farm-to-market roads were the new infrastructure Kentucky needed to move its economy forward. A half-century ago, it was interstates and parkways.

Now, it's the information superhighway.

As the federal government begins taking applications Feb. 15 for $7.2 billion in second-round stimulus money to expand broadband, it's a good time to check in on a Kentucky program that has become a model for other states.

ConnectKentucky was launched as a public-private partnership in 2004 to map high-speed Internet access in Kentucky, find gaps in coverage and work county-by-county with citizens, local officials and service providers to fill them. Much of the work focused on rural areas and the mountains.

From 2004 to 2007, broadband availability grew from 58 percent of Kentucky households to 95 percent, ConnectKentucky says.

The organization's newest initiative uses money from coal severance taxes and the Appalachian Regional Commission to expand broadband access in Breathitt, Powell, Estill and Lee counties.

ConnectKentucky also works to teach people how to use computers and to promote broadband as a way to improve economic and community development, education and health care.

That's because broadband availability and affordability aren't the only issues, said René True, executive director of ConnectKentucky. "Sometimes there's a lack of understanding of the value that broadband can bring to a household or an individual," he said.

ConnectKentucky's Computers 4 Kids program has distributed 3,203 computers to low-income families and non-profit organizations. Many of those were older models refurbished by state inmates, who in the process learned skills they can use to get jobs when they leave prison.

The organization's Web site — www.connectkentucky.org — includes county-by-county information and broadband speed-testing software.

ConnectKentucky has become a national model for broadband expansion. After Ohio and Tennessee wanted to copy ConnectKentucky's approach, a national non-profit, Connected Nation, was formed as an umbrella organization. Connected Nation also now works with 10 other states and Puerto Rico.

ConnectKentucky and Connected Nation haven't escaped controversy. Critics complain that the public-private partnership favors major telephone and cable companies at the expense of small providers and public broadband solutions.

The organizations dispute that, saying they work with all providers in a given area. Nationally, 19 big corporations now provide 93 percent of all broadband services, according to Leichtman Research Group, an industry consultant.

They also have been caught up in a larger debate about national broadband policy. Critics say America needs a more ambitious national broadband strategy than simply supporting the individual business strategies of private providers.

Connected Nation has attracted bipartisan political support, as has ConnectKentucky, which was launched by then-Gov. Ernie Fletcher, a Republican, but built on work begun by his predecessor, Gov. Paul Patton, a Democrat.

Still, in the scramble to balance the two-year state budget in 2008, Gov. Steve Beshear vetoed $1.2 million in annual funding for ConnectKentucky, which surprised some lawmakers. True said the organization hasn't asked for state funding for the next budget cycle.

ConnectKentucky is being kept afloat now by Connected Nation, $100,000 in corporate support and other revenue from grants and consulting work, True said. Rather than statewide projects, it is focusing on local efforts where it can secure grants and other funding.

One such project begins in April, when ConnectKentucky will use a $134,000 Kentucky Housing Corp. grant to provide computers, broadband connectivity and training to low-income residents in the redeveloped Equestrian View neighborhood of Lexington's East End. Lexmark is donating printers.

True said ConnectKentucky plans to apply for some of the new federal stimulus money to expand that kind of program to other public housing in Kentucky.

"It's a key component for participating in the 21st-century economy," he said of computer knowledge and broadband access. "Without it, we're going to be left behind."

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