VALLEY OAK — More than 400 people work at the Blackboard call center in Pulaski County, primarily helping college students navigate questions on financial aid, enrollment and other issues.
The center — and its jobs — wouldn't be there if an economic-development agency had not installed high-speed Internet service in the building, said Ross D. Rutt, director of operations at the company.
"Without the infrastructure here, that would have killed any ability to do business here," Rutt said during a tour for regional leaders Wednesday.
U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers led the tour to showcase the potential for much-improved broadband service to boost economic development in southern and Eastern Kentucky.
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The tour was part of the Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative, which Rogers and Gov. Steve Beshear started last year to try to diversify the economy in Eastern Kentucky, crippled by the loss of half its coal jobs since early 2012.
The initiative is promoting a project that would cost up to $200 million to build 3,000 miles of fiber-optic infrastructure across the state, starting in Eastern Kentucky.
The Internet pipeline would come from the Cincinnati area down Interstate 75 and branch off at several points through the eastern end of the state, Rogers said.
The legislature this year approved $30 million in bonds for the project, and the federal government has committed $20 million.
Officials are evaluating proposals from private companies to take part in the project, said Lonnie Lawson, president and chief executive officer of the Center for Rural Development in Somerset, which is helping in the assessment.
The tour Wednesday was of businesses in southern Kentucky that rely on broadband.
The stops were Blackboard; Senture, a call center in Laurel County that provides services for several federal agencies; Source HOV in Mount Vernon, which converts military veterans' disability claims from paper to digital format; TrollandToad.com, a Corbin company that sells games over the Internet; and the Kentucky Consular Center in Williamsburg, a U.S. State Department facility that processes visa applications to enter the country.
All are along or near I-75 and have access to Internet service that is good enough to conduct business.
However, the planned broadband project would mean significantly more capacity for them as well as lower costs, Lawson said.
And in some areas, the kind of Internet service needed for many kinds of jobs and other services simply isn't available, or at least isn't available at a competitive price, officials said.
A 2012 study by the University of Kentucky Center for Business and Economic Research found that there were only about two dozen counties clustered in urban areas of the state where at least 80 percent of homes have access to "nationally competitive" broadband speeds of at least 25 megabits per second for downloads.
Many rural areas have much slower speeds or don't have broadband.
Other measures have found that the state ranks 46th in the availability of broadband and that 23 percent of rural areas have no access to such service.
Improved broadband would help not only with economic development, but also in education, health care and other areas, officials said.
Managers at every stop on Wednesday's tour lauded the quality of their employees, Rogers said.
That shows it's clear that people in the region can succeed at the kinds of jobs that rely on high-speed Internet, but they don't get the chance now because many places lack the necessary service, he said.
"I'm hoping that will attract these kinds of businesses to all parts of my region," Rogers said of the broadband project.