Eastern Kentucky is at a crossroads. For generations, the economic driver of our Appalachian communities was coal. It created a flexible county tax base, supported school districts, and employed tens of thousands of miners and ancillary workers.
That support has wilted with the decline in the coal industry. Today, the region must find a new economy or die.
Several ideas have been floated. Aerospace has promise as Kentucky’s largest export industry. Information Technology has high profile projects in Floyd and Pike County. Tourism has enormous potential in an area chock-full of heritage, regional foods and physical beauty. In all likelihood, we will pursue all and more; we cannot afford to let opportunity pass us by.
Whatever combination of economic growth strategies we pursue, there is a thread running through all these industries: high-speed internet. Without the digital pipeline connecting us to the outside world and giving us access to high-volume internet traffic, economically our region will never thrive.
Eastern Kentucky is woefully behind in connectivity. Many go without, or are stuck with poor, unreliable broadband service at unaffordable prices. A quick look at the KentuckyWired maps for existing service highlights the gaps. The farther south and east one goes, the harder it is to find high-speed internet. While most county seats have access, the outlying areas typically suffer from a lack of affordable options.
The results are devastating: Businesses refuse to locate in rural towns, young tech entrepreneurs are forced to relocate; and our youth must download their homework assignments while sitting in fast-food restaurants. Most frustrating of all: the numerous lost growth opportunities Eastern Kentucky’s existing entrepreneurs face daily.
Kentucky has wisely set upon a course to build its own statewide, high-speed network via an innovative public-private partnership. Once completed, this network has the potential to revitalize and energize our region as well as the rest of the commonwealth.
Some media reports suggest that support for this project may be wavering. There have been challenges but have no doubt about it: pulling back this project now could be disastrous to our region’s efforts to create a new economy.
Shuttering the project would cause serious reputational harm to Kentucky’s ability to attract, retain and grow businesses and promote entrepreneurship.
Progress is sometimes slow and incremental, but just as the last century’s economic development was built on highways, this century’s growth is predicated on internet skyways.
Every year I see new and ever more impressive ventures being started in the mountains. The entrepreneurs who create these opportunities will drive Eastern Kentucky into the future. But they must have good roads to get there; in the 21st century that means high-speed broadband. KentuckyWired is the best chance for building those pathways so vital for our future.
Johnathan Gay is an attorney and economic developer who has spent his entire professional career working in Eastern Kentucky. He’s a native of Leslie County.