KentuckyWired and the finish line

Published 11:56 am Friday, August 3, 2018

The prospects of providing high speed broadband Internet to rural areas in Eastern Kentucky were detailed recently in an update provided to the Greenup County Fiscal Court.

(…) The goal for completion of installation of fiber optic broadband connectivity infrastructure in the county is next summer. Holly Hopkins Scoville, manager of Government and Resident Relations for the KentuckyWired Project, said the last day of work in the area per contract is July 2020, but the goal is to be done with work nearly a year earlier.

That’s certainly good news. This entire KentuckyWired project is an incredibly complex issue, though, and it is a very important one to both the taxpayer and the state’s long-term interests. We see both good and bad in the project. First the good.

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If all parts of Kentucky are going to grow and prosper, there needs to be this type of infrastructure in place. One of the reasons rural areas are now lagging far behind municipalities across the nation is this very issue. A huge chunk of our future in job growth and the development of business is found in technology. The communities with the most advanced technology will have the best chance at success. Those that don’t have it will fall further behind.

It is important to note this also applies to diverse sectors of the economy including government, health care and very importantly for this region, education. High speed broadband is a very important part of education. Teaching kids technology requires technology. Sounds simplistic but it is very true. This project is well intentioned and it is smart over the long haul to make these services available to all.

Here’s the bad: the cost. This project is costing the taxpayer a lot of money and the costs keep rising. KentuckyWired’s fate wobbled in the most recent session of the General Assembly when significant cost overruns rightly caused alarm bells to go off. The project is now moving forward but we are once again reminded that public-private partnerships, in our view at least, rarely fall within projected cost guidelines. Does that mean we are against them? Of course not. Public-private partnerships are an important part of development. But the idea that the cost projections of this project were so far off is beyond concerning.

Another problem we see here is that even when the infrastructure is in place there is no guarantee that many of our residents will be able to access it. Asked by The Daily Independent if the project meant every resident in Greenup, Carter and Boyd counties could connect to the services, Hopkins Scoville said:

“This is a middle mile,” she said. “Unless you have an ISP provider that attaches to this and brings fiber to the business and every home there, this is just a middle mile coming through your property. I can tell you right now there are numerous ways this is being handled. Fayette County is actually doing their own…running fiber to every business and home in Fayette County. The city of London…they bought additional fiber, they are actually going to their industrial parks right now with thoughts of expanding out into the city and into the county. “

Translation — it seems to us the taxpayer is going to have to spend more money to take advantage of this infrastructure. Certainly on the local level our governments are already spread thin. The idea that cities and counties are going to be able to make significant investments in connection is dubious, at least in this region. Hopefully the private sector is able to help realize the benefits of KentuckyWired, but the cost of this project, already in the hundreds of millions, should have at least come with some sort of plan out of the gate to make sure — without question — that all will benefit from the infrastructure, or at least have the opportunity to do so. We are not convinced right now this is the case.

In the long run we are optimistic this project will be of great benefit to the citizenry of the Commonwealth. It certainly needs to be given the staggering costs. We believe it is the right thing to do. Getting to the finish line, though, in regards to Eastern Kentucky, certainly has many challenges ahead and all of the questions surrounding this are more than justified.

The Daily Independent of Ashland