2021 is off and to the races, and already one topic is still dominating debate across our communities, state, and nation: access to high-speed internet. Upload speeds, middle mile, fiber, last mile, low earth orbiting satellites … for the average person, it is easy to get lost in the weeds.
Technical terminology and complicated diagrams aside, what it comes down to is this …
Every Kentuckian from Pikeville to Paducah deserves the same thing: adequate and affordable high-speed internet that allows our children to go to school from home; supports remote work opportunities; and provides adequate telehealth access.
Our current situation is completely unacceptable. From students having to leverage local drive-in wi-fi hot spots to complete homework to adults being excluded from work-from-home opportunities due to insufficient broadband speeds, many Kentucky counties, especially those in rural areas, are on the wrong side of the digital divide.
The gap to be filled across Kentucky is large … The U.S. Census Bureau ranks Kentucky 44th for broadband access, with nearly 25 percent of households lacking high-speed internet.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Kentuckians were experiencing similar issues when it came to connecting electricity to homes. It took infrastructure investments from both private and public entities to bring electricity to our most rural areas. Now, elected officials and communications companies have another opportunity to plan now for our shared future prosperity by committing to getting last mile broadband done.
First, it’s about mapping, which the Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman, the Center for Rural Development and the Prichard Committee are championing now. Without an accurate broadband baseline, proper investment and policy decisions cannot be made. If you have not already, please take 30 seconds to document the internet speed at your home or place of work at speedtest.ky.gov. These data are critical to getting last mile done.
Second, we must have a plan to ensure every state and federal dollar dedicated to last mile is put to good use. Kentucky needs a proper plan to guide public investments, ensure accountability, and – most importantly – ensure that individuals and families most in need benefit. This problem will require innovations, partnerships and ingenuity in communities across the state – and public investments must serve to break down barriers to getting last mile done.
Lastly, even with access, affordability must still be addressed. Statistics show in both rural and urban areas low-income households struggle to pay for high-speed internet even when it is available. Local, state, and federal officials must work together along with providers to find creative solutions to offer adequate service at affordable rates.
The task at hand is massive, and it will not be easy. But no other option exists.
Kentucky must step up to the plate and knock last mile broadband out of the park – for Kentuckians future and for the future of the state’s economy.
Brigitte Blom Ramsey is the President & CEO of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence; Colby Hall is the Executive Director of SOAR, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that is a champion for Appalachia Kentucky.