Tuesday, February 09, 2016

How two of the nation's poorest rural counties got connected to one of the nation's fastest networks

Two of the nation's poorest rural counties share one of the nation's fastest Internet connections, Tim Marema reports for the Daily Yonder. Jackson and Owsley counties in southeastern Kentucky—Jackson County has a 26.8 percent poverty rate and Owsley County a 45.1 percent poverty rate, according to 2014 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture—"are not the first counties that come to mind when you think of ubiquitous access to fiber-optic cable – the fastest conduit for digital communication. The counties are part of the Kentucky Fifth District, the most rural congressional district in the U.S. But an innovative approach, a can-do spirit, and a financial package that combined local capital with federal loans and grants have made the network possible."

The fiber network for Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative, which serves the two counties, was funded through loans from the agriculture department's Rural Utilities Service, grants from the the 2009 economic-stimulus packag, and PRTC’s own funds. Marema reports: "The total project cost was about $50 million. The project will receive indirect support from the Universal Service Fund, which provides telecommunications subsidies for areas that are hard to serve. PRTC received about $5 million in USF support last year. ... USF is financed by a monthly fee on consumers’ telephone bills." (Jackson and Owsley counties are highlighted on the map)
Co-op CEO Keith Gabbard said the company's fiber network "is available to all the co-operative’s 7,000 customers," Marema writes. "About two-thirds of customers subscribe to Internet services now, Gabbard said." Despite decreases in population in the two counties, the number of broadband customers increased by 150 last year. "PRTC has an average of only seven customers per mile of service line. Thirty percent of the service area is national forest. About half of Jackson County residents who work commute outside the county to their jobs."

High-speed Internet has also helped 150 people in Jackson County find jobs through the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, which "teaches trainees how to work remotely from home," Marema writes. "With a high-speed connection now available, trainees are able to find work as call-center or customer-service representatives for companies like U-Haul, Apple, and firms that contract with hotels and retailers for customer service." Jeff Whitehead, executive director of the program, told Marema. “What that means is, estimating conservatively, that $3 million in wages are coming into this county from companies that are away from here." (Read more)

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