LEXINGTON, Ky. (FOX 56) — Sixteen Kentucky counties are getting connected in a major rural broadband expansion project. Underneath the beauty of eastern Kentucky’s mountains and hollers is a big problem that’s made internet access hard to find in that region of the state.
“Sometimes it’s not affordable; sometimes you just don’t have access, and it’s tougher. It’s tougher to build a road in the mountains because it’s just the mountains,” Sen. Robert Stivers (R-Manchester) told FOX 56 News.
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“I would say there’s places where it would be over $100,000 a mile if you had to run it underground,” Lonnie Lawson, president and CEO of The Center for Rural Development, said.
Now, after more than a decade of planning, more than $30 million in federal and matching dollars is secured to start building out fiber broadband across 16 counties: Bath, Bell, Boyd, Carter, Garrard, Knox, Laurel, Letcher, Lincoln, Martin, McCreary, Pulaski, Rockcastle, Rowan, Russell, and Whitley. The project will make use of much of the existing lines and infrastructure to bring connectivity to at least 33,000 households.
“What we had to do is utilize the speed test and look at the really remote, unserved areas—not underserved, but unserved areas,” Lawson said.
Lawson said some areas may get connected as soon as the next 3 to 6 months, with a timeline of about a year and a half expected for the full project.
“It’s a really big deal because of the potential population loss we have here because of the decline in the coal industry. This is something that could be a replacement to help us attract and keep jobs here. And we need it,” Stivers said.
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Stivers said the state has projected a 10% to 40% population loss for much of east Kentucky over the next two decades unless there’s more access to jobs. He said that with this kind of investment, more people can choose a higher-paying city job while working remotely.
The Federal Communications Commission ranks Kentucky 8th in the nation for the percentage of locations with access to internet speeds of one gigabit or more; that’s generally considered high speed. However, Kentucky is also 14th in the nation in the number of unserved areas, which officials said demonstrates how uneven access to high-speed Internet is in the Commonwealth.