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Ky. gave millions to cooperatives for broadband. Here's how two of them will connect rural residents

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Kentucky awarded millions of dollars to a number of electricity and telephone cooperatives earlier this summer to build out broadband internet access in rural communities. Some of these rural cooperatives have already been building internet connections for years before receiving this funding, likening the initiative to when cooperatives constructed electricity lines more than 50 years ago.

The state legislature last year passed two bills allocating $300 million in federal funding – which originated from the American Rescue Plan Act – to expand broadband access in rural Kentucky. The Kentucky Finance and Administration Cabinet awarded more than $89 million of that in June to local governments, utility cooperatives and private corporations to bring internet connectivity to underserved rural communities. These awardees provide matching funding for these state grants, furthering the investment for the projects.

Pennyrile Rural Electric Cooperative has been constructing fiber optic cable lines – often considered the premier form of internet connection – to rural homes and businesses since November using funding received from local counties.

Pennyrile Rural Electric Cooperative Vice President Brent Gilkey said the utility is building 50 miles of fiber cable a month and hopes to eventually expand that to 100 miles a month.

“Just like the electric system, it couldn't, it can't be done overnight,” Gilkey. “It's got to be done with time and more money.”

The cooperative is receiving more than $13.8 million to connect about 5,600 homes and businesses in Caldwell, Christian, Lyon, Todd and Trigg counties. The utility is working with Hopkinsville Electric System for the build-out, putting the fiber cable directly onto utility poles.

Gibson Electric Membership Corporation in far western Kentucky and northwest Tennessee began laying out fiber connections in 2017 with grant funding from the Tennessee government. With more than $4 million awarded from Kentucky, the cooperative plans to build fiber to about 1,700 households and businesses in Fulton, Carlisle and Hickman counties.

Gibson Electric Membership Corporation Vice President Charles Phillips said the nonprofit nature of cooperatives allows them to invest in rural communities where for-profit companies may see less incentive.

“This particular area and the fact that it’s so rural really lended itself to needing an alternative way for broadband to be provided, and the electric cooperatives, and I would say the telephone cooperatives, really have stepped up,” Phillips said.

Phillips said there’s less than three households or businesses per mile for the area they’re serving with the Kentucky grant funding, while larger internet provider corporations would need many times that household density to make a broadband project profitable. In the recent past, rural communities in western Kentucky and throughout the Ohio Valley have faced challenges with getting broadband because of a perceived lack of profitability in connecting these communities.

Phillips said the jump in internet speed that cooperative customers will see once connected is substantial: up to a gigabit per second download and upload speed, or 1000 megabits per second. It takes between 5 to 8 megabits per second download speed to stream an HD movie. He said the cooperative also participates in federal programs to make internet access more affordable.

“Having a wire run down the road is one thing but actually being able to afford it in your home is where the rubber really hits the road,” Phillips said.

Penny Rural Electric Cooperative and Gibson Electric Membership Corporation are both waiting for contracts detailing specifics of using the grant funding from the Kentucky Infrastructure Authority before moving ahead with the broadband projects.

"Liam Niemeyer is a reporter for the Ohio Valley Resource covering agriculture and infrastructure in Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia and also serves Assistant News Director at WKMS. He has reported for public radio stations across the country from Appalachia to Alaska, most recently as a reporter for WOUB Public Media in Athens, Ohio. He is a recent alumnus of Ohio University and enjoys playing tenor saxophone in various jazz groups."
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