TheTimesTribune.com, Corbin, KY
By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service
Republican U.S. Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers said Wednesday that a network providing high speed, high capacity broadband service to rural and eastern Kentucky can overcome historical disadvantages of the region such as mountainous terrain and lack of transportation that have deterred economic development.
Along with Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, Rogers wants Kentucky to invest in what he calls a “Super I-Way” to level the playing field and convert the area into what Rogers calls “Silicone Holler.”
In fact, Rogers said during a joint press conference in the state Capitol with Beshear and 18 eastern Kentucky state lawmakers, it can “make the world flat.”
Broadband service for historically underserved eastern Kentucky was one of the primary recommendations from the December SOAR (Shaping Our Appalachian Region) conference held in Pikeville to discuss ways to diversify the eastern Kentucky economy in the wake of the declining coal industry.
Rogers and Beshear convened the conference and promised action on the recommendations. In his budget speech to lawmakers Tuesday night, Beshear called for expanding broadband to all of rural Kentucky and to extend and expand the Mountain Parkway from Winchester to Prestonsburg.
Beshear said he can’t guarantee a new business or industry will choose to locate in a community with broadband service but he can almost guarantee they won’t locate in one without it. Rogers said the Internet has become this era’s interstate highway for major businesses and industry.
Beshear’s budget proposal calls for issuing $60 million of bonds toward a $100 million project to extend broadband trunk lines to all sections of Kentucky. The remaining $40 million is to come from a combination of federal and private funding.
The first phase of the project will focus on eastern Kentucky, the region of the state with the least broadband service and access. Rogers, chairman of the U.S. House Appropriations Committee, said Wednesday that the federal omnibus spending plan passed by Congress last week includes about $80 million for the Appalachian Regional Commission to increase job opportunities and per capita income in the region.
That includes $10 million for broadband deployment in distressed central Appalachian counties in Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia.
“I’m hoping this will be the beginning of federal investment in our hard-hit coal fields,” Rogers said. While he said broadband service isn’t “a silver bullet, it will level the playing field. For the first time ever, eastern Kentucky will be in the world market without having to chase jobs in the Detroits of our past.”
Rogers moved to Detroit in search of work when he was just out of college before returning to his home region.
Standing behind Beshear and Rogers were the top two legislative leaders of the General Assembly: Democratic Speaker of the House Greg Stumbo and Republican Senate President Robert Stivers, both of whom come from Rogers’ Fifth District in eastern Kentucky.
But Stivers has also said Beshear’s budget contains “a lot of debt,” and his Floor Leader, Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, also criticized the budget’s debt levels. Rogers didn’t directly address concerns about debt by Republicans, but he noted the project will be funded “only in part” by the state.
He also said the investment will be returned several times over in new businesses and employment. Stivers didn’t address the question — which was directed to Rogers.
Beshear said the state will seek partnerships with some private companies to help finance the project and Rogers noted the system would allow a much larger capacity that can be accessed and used by private companies. Local communities could also hook onto the trunk lines.
“What we’re talking about is hooking onto the national grid,” Rogers said, vastly increasing capacity. He talked about federal data processing jobs which have been created along I-75 from Mt. Vernon to Corbin, even with a lower capacity system.
RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.