The Kentucky House of Representatives passed a bill with bipartisan support Wednesday that would allocate $250 million from the state’s general fund for building broadband internet throughout underserved communities. The legislation would expand on a bill signed into law last year that established a broadband-focused grant fund.
Bill sponsor GOP Rep. Brandon Reed said Tuesday in front of the House Appropriations and Revenue committee this proposal would move forward efforts to construct the “last mile” of broadband, referring to directly connecting residences and businesses to the internet.
“With the pandemic, it has shed light on our problems with broadband. I think we can all agree with that,” Reed said. “[The bill] will clear the way for rural electric cooperatives to feasibly provide broadband service to underserved households and businesses.”
A state broadband deployment fund was established last year, to be administered by the Kentucky Infrastructure Authority, giving grants to government agencies and private entities to deploy broadband in underserved and unserved communities.
“We have been advocating throughout the session for any and all measures that could get real funding in place to help, especially with that last mile, and that rural broadband to the homes is so critical,” said Kentucky Association of Counties Executive Director Jim Henderson. “$250 million is a huge shot in the arm to helping get that final piece out there for our counties.”
Kentucky Electric Cooperatives Vice President of Strategic Communications Joe Arnold said the bill would also allow the more than a dozen electric cooperatives regulated by the Public Service Commission to expand broadband access in their coverage areas through financing a subsidiary, something that’s currently prohibited by state law.
Arnold said his group is open to all entities, private and public, that want to build out broadband with the funds allocated in the bill. He sees the provision in the bill allowing electric cooperatives to expand into broadband as an endorsement of the service electric cooperatives provide, especially considering that his group didn’t “spearhead” the bill.
“We were honored that legislators looked at us as being last mile experts,” Arnold said. “The red carpet is out for anyone who wants to expand broadband to the areas that desperately need it.”
The Kenergy Corporation in western Kentucky, which supports the bill, unsuccessfully last year tried to receive a waiver from the Public Service Commission to bypass state law prohibiting the electric cooperative from funding a broadband-focused subsidiary. The bill now moves to the Senate.