In a time when virtual connectivity is more essential than ever, Kentuckians in rural parts of the Commonwealth are struggling due to a lack of internet availability near their homes. While school districts and local businesses work together to offer a temporary solution by offering WiFi hotspots to students and community members, one large-scale state project that is on the verge of being completed, seeks to end that frustration caused by the lack of connectivity in the Bluegrass, but will it?
Established during the tenure of former Governor Steve Beshear, KentuckyWired is a first-of-its-kind state initiative that aims to provide high-speed broadband internet to all 120 Kentucky counties.
The project overseen by the Kentucky Communications Network Authority (KCNA) is nearing completion, as 98 percent of the 3,000+ miles of fiber-optic cable creating the KentuckyWired network has been laid out across the Commonwealth.
"We are what's called in the industry 'the middle mile' portion of high-speed broadband internet," explained KentuckyWired CEO Rob Morphonios. "Which basically means in translation, we are the backbone, the trunk line, that gets it from the data centers to all of those counties across Kentucky."
KentuckyWired's website says that it helps to think of the project's network as an interstate highway system that will provide "exit ramps" for local internet service providers (ISPs) like Spectrum, Windstream, etc. to connect to, and thus expand their service coverage area to previously unreachable homes and businesses.
"I think that interstate highway analogy is appropriate," said Jamie Link, the Executive Director of KCNA. "We will have off-ramps, if you will, to every county in the state."
KenutckyWired's network, or interstate-like construct of cables, was built in six rings across the state with each ring providing coverage to a specific region of the Commonwealth.
"This allows for total state coverage as well as redundancy," noted Link. "So if there happens to be an outage of service due to an accident or a weather issue, if there's a break in the line, the light will reroute the other direction on the 'interstate highway' and service will only be down for a few seconds, instead of being our for several hours, or perhaps a day or two," he added.
Morphonios said that part of the KentuckyWired project is connecting many of the Commonwealth's governmental agencies like highway patrol buildings, court houses, the Department of Children and Families in each county, and others to the network.
"We are already getting feedback from the Commonwealth's agencies that have migrated," noted Morphonios. "We've probably got 45-50 of those agencies already migrating over, and the feedback we're getting from them is that they're extremely pleased," he continued. "And these are large enterprises that are using these networks."
Link explained that in order for the project's network to be operational, that state has to connect the network to those governmental buildings or to what is referred to as telecommunication shelters that are strategically placed around the state.
"We're continuing to work very aggressively to make sure all of the locations where the fiber terminates, are up and running as quickly as possible," said Link. "Our goal is to have those locations, those rings, operational by later this year."
Once the project is completed, and the network is fully operational, Link says the state's partnered whole-seller, a company called OpenFiber Kentucky, will begin working with local ISPs in setting up a connection to the network. Meaning that once the project is finished, it will be up to those local ISPs and communities to connect to KentuckyWired's interstate-like network.
The contract between OpenFiber and the Commonwealth will see the company act as a gateway between local ISPs, communities and the KentuckyWired, according to Morphonios. The company will make arrangements with local ISPs and communities as to where within their county they can connect to the network. They will also be in charge of determining how much of the network's capacity is available for local ISPs to lease.
"That is what we call the whole-sale side of this project," explained Morphonios. "And it also works to help pay for the project in that those fees that are charged to the local service providers, the majority of that revenue goes back to the Commonwealth."
From $30 million to $1 billion
That revenue turned back over to the Commonwealth will be important, as Alfred Miller of the Louisville Courier-Journal reported last year that delays in the KentuckyWired project have caused the project as a whole to be more than $100 million over budget.
Back in 2014, the state entered into a partnership with the Australian-based independent investment bank and financial service Macquarie Capital, which will operate the state-owned project for the next 30 years. At that time, state officials believed that partnership would benefit the Commonwealth in that it would only cost Kentucky $30 million in investments for the project to be completed.
"The first phase of our exam, which we released last September, highlighted how this project went from a $30 million investment to taxpayers being on the hook to pay more than a billion dollars for KentuckyWired," said Auditor Harmon after a second-phase audit of the KentuckyWired project back in December.
Harmon said Kentucky's taxpayers could be on the hook for paying $1.5 billion over the next 30 years to cover the cost of the project.
"What we found in phase two was there were numerous changes made after the Commonwealth signed a contract with the main contractor for the project that 'flipped the script' to move the costs and risks from private investors, and placed it almost entirely on taxpayers," Harmon said when releasing the report of phase two.
Worth the cost?
The exorbitant cost of building an infrastructure of a fiberoptic network is what Link says has kept privately-owned ISPs from expanding their coverage into more rural parts of the state.
"I think one of the reasons there's the lack of rural broadband service in the state, and quite frankly across the country, is the cost of building this infrastructure is significant of course," he said, adding that even though there are some ISPs, and non-profit ISPs who help cover the cost of providing coverage, for the most part, ISPs are for-profit entities and have to worry about their bottom line.
"That cost of installing this major infrastructure has been cost prohibited," Link continued. "The increasing demand for broadband service, and the current circumstances with the COVID-19 pandemic, I think that clearly shows the importance of having this broadband infrastructure in place. And honestly, Kentucky is the first state to do this on a statewide basis. So I think this positions Kentucky to be in a position to help our citizens, help our business community, to make that connection working with the local providers."
When asked if there were any obligations on local ISPs to connect to KentuckyWired's network and expand their service, Morphonios responded that there wasn't any obligation from the state's perspective. He said that's why officials from KentuckyWired were spreading the word about the project and that it was nearing completion.
"We call it an effort to get a groundswell of locals to start contacting their local service providers, contacting the Kentucky Communications Authority to ask, 'how does our community connect to this,'" Morphonios said, adding, "There are options on how to do that. Some counties are looking at regional coordination to look for federal grants. So there's lots of things to be discussed, lots of things to discover about how this is going to blossom into use by everyone across the Commonwealth to get access to very high-speed internet."
"Part of the goal is that by the Commonwealth constructing this backbone network or the interstate highway as we talked about, is that it reduces the cost of local providers having to install that major infrastructure," Link said. "That should enhance competition, and it should make in the free market, that should make the service more competitive," he continued. "So those areas that currently do not have service, we hope that incentivizes local providers to expand their service out to those areas that desperately need that service."
According to Link, the Kentucky Communications Network Authority had partnered with local organizations such as the East Kentucky Network, Kentucky Association of Counties, the Kentucky League of Cities, and the University of Kentucky's extension program in an attempt at bringing broadband internet to eastern Kentucky residents.
"I think there really needs to be a lot of local, and regional conversations started now with players from the Commonwealth and bringing your local service providers together, your co-ops, your counties, cities and talking about how do we get access and use the network that KentuckyWired has put in place," noted Morphonios. "It's had a lot of challenges, but we're very pleased and very excited that we're now in the final stages of completing this project, and its important for us to get the word out there, one that, 'hey this is now coming available in your area, for your use, through your local service provider,'" he later added.
"This is a Kentucky project," noted Link. "This is not a partisan project. Congressman [Hal] Rogers and Gov. [Steve] Beshear worked together to get this project started, and this is to service all of Kentucky. There's no political label on this project, it's a Kentucky project."
The Times-Tribune is taking an in-depth look at how people in southeast Kentucky are working to close the connectivity gap. This open-ended series will explore what issues are present when internet is not accessible and who is working to solve these issues.