Keith Gabbard is the first to admit that there’s a lot his rural Kentucky county doesn’t have — a hospital, college, railroad, interstate, or even a four-lane highway, for instance.
But Gabbard says instead of focusing on what’s missing, he’d like to concentrate on what Jackson County does have: blisteringly fast Internet service that is the envy of its urban neighbors.
Gabbard is CEO and general manager of PRTC, a telephone cooperative that serves Jackson and Owsley counties in southeast Kentucky.
Jackson and Owsley 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 United States. They are also among the poorest in the United States. About a third of all residents in Jackson and Owsley live below the poverty line. Median household incomes are about half the national rate.
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.
Gabbard and others involved in deploying and using the county’s network hope the new fiber system can be part of improving the economy and quality of life in their service area.
Gabbard was one of the presenters at a show-and-tell in McKee, Kentucky, arranged for the benefit of Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Wheeler was in town at the invitation of U.S. Representative Hal Rogers, (KY-5th-R), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Wheeler visited McKee to hear about PRTC’s broadband progress. The other portion of his trip was a discussion about economic development and broadband at Hazard Community College in Hazard.
In McKee, Wheeler emphasized how Americans work together to ensure that hard-to-serve areas like Jackson and Owsley counties have better access to telecommunications services.
PRTC’s fiber network was funded through a combination of loans from the Department of Agriculture Rural Utility Service, grants that were part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and PRTC’s own earnings and capital. 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.
Wheeler said that’s how it should be.
“I’m proud to say that all Americans have participated in building this network” through the Universal Service Fund and other programs, Wheeler said. USF is financed by a monthly fee on consumers’ telephone bills. Kentucky receives about $83 million more in USF support than Kentuckians contribute to the fund.
“There’s a lot of talk in this election about the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ and how we need a collective solution to problems,” Wheeler said. USF is one answer.
“Because folks like me, who live in [better connected areas like] Washington, D.C., ought to be making sure that everybody in this country is connected. We can’t have ‘fiber haves’ and ‘fiber have nots.’”
Wheeler said PRTC’s success in building an advanced network in a rural, hard-to-serve area had lessons for the rest of the nation.
“I hope you folks realize what a big deal this is – connecting homes and businesses to high-speed fiber,” he said. “You’ve done it. I’m going to be talking about Jackson County in other places now. I’ll say, ‘By God, I’ve been in those hollers, and if they can do it there, you can do it too.’”
PRTC’s fiber network is available to all the co-operative’s 7,000 customers. About two-thirds of customers subscribe to Internet services now, Gabbard said. The co-op also offers telephone and cable TV service via fiber. Despite consistent declines in population in Jackson and Owsley counties, the number of broadband users increased by about 150 customers last year, he said.
Monthly fees for the service range from $36 for 6 megabytes download and 1 megabyte upload to $100 for 100 megs down and 5 megs up. Gigabyte service is available but not posted on the website’s rate card yet.
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.
Jeff Whitehead, executive director of Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, said the high-speed network offered ways to start turning some of those numbers around. EKCEP operates a program that teaches trainees how to work remotely from home. With a high-speed connection now available, trainees are able to find work as call-center or customer-service representatives for companies like UHaul, Apple, and firms that contract with hotels and retailers for customer service.
About 150 people in Jackson County have found jobs through the training program in the last year, Whitehead said.
“What that means is, estimating conservatively, that $3 million in wages are coming into this county from companies that are away from here,” he said.
Gigabyte service is also available in the counties’ public libraries and schools. In Owsley County, the school system is planning to use the better connectivity to improve learning during “virtual snow days.” The school system misses an average of 30 days a year when snow makes the roads impassable. The system has a grant to provide computer notepads to students to do assignments at home, rather than miss weeks of instruction, said Owsley County Schools Superintendent Timothy W. Bobrowski.
Congressman Rogers said building out better broadband access for Eastern Kentucky was a necessary part of diversifying the region’s economy, which has been heavily dependent on coal.
“I will be with coal as long as I’m around, and it’s going to be around for a while,” he said. “But it’s not producing as many jobs, and it’s going to produce fewer and fewer. We’ve got to find some ways to revitalize our economy so that we can keep our people here and give them meaningful jobs.”