Governor Announces Major Investments for Broadband Expansion
Kentucky took a step toward closing its digital divide on Monday, when Gov. Andy Beshear announced $203 million in broadband investments — with the promise of more to come — to connect areas without internet access. or with chronically slow service.
The plan seeks to combine a major injection of federal funds backed by Democratic leaders in Congress with matching funds to achieve a longstanding bipartisan goal that has long eluded Kentucky leaders.
Previous efforts have failed to bring the internet to remote parts of the state, where leaders have long seen it as key to future economic viability. The persistent lack of access in parts of the state was laid bare during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, where remote work and schooling were both hampered by significant gaps in connectivity.
The round of investments announced Monday will be divided into 46 grants awarded to 12 internet service providers and local governments spanning 35 counties. The grants will provide reliable internet to more than 34,000 Kentucky families and businesses, the governor said.
“Everyone needs it,” Beshear said. “Everyone deserves to have access to it.”
The investments include $89.1 million from the state’s share of federal pandemic assistance that state lawmakers have earmarked for broadband expansion, Beshear said. Grant recipients have pledged to match these contributions, bringing total investments for this cycle to more than $203 million.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on the crucial role high-speed internet plays in the state’s educational and economic systems.
“High-speed, reliable internet is not just the infrastructure of the future, it’s the infrastructure needed right now,” the governor said at a press conference. “It’s just as important as the roads, the bridges. And today is a key part of our plan to build a better Kentucky. And it will be critical to the success of our state’s economy and the creation of future jobs.
The grants announced Monday are aimed at reducing construction costs to extend the Internet to the hardest-to-reach areas, with a focus on unserved areas of Kentucky.
State Budget Director John Hicks called it “the first chapter of many chapters” as the state doles out funds to expand broadband service.
In 2021, Kentucky lawmakers agreed to use $300 million in federal pandemic relief funds to expand broadband service. It reflected a bipartisan deal between the Republican-dominated legislature and Beshear, a Democrat.
The Bluegrass State still has about $210 million in federal pandemic assistance to allocate to broadband expansion. Combined with corresponding requirements, a minimum of $600 million will support the expansion of high-speed internet, Beshear’s office said in a press release. The state also expects another cash injection for broadband from the Federal Infrastructure Act.
“We’re going to have the best shot in Commonwealth history to bring internet access to every Kentuckian,” Beshear said.
Asked how long it will take to achieve universal, reliable internet access across the state, the governor predicted “dramatic improvement” over the next four to five years.
Beshear also pointed out that affordability is part of the broadband equation.
“We’re still going to have to continue to keep an eye on affordability,” he said. “Just getting it somewhere, if people can’t afford it, isn’t enough.”
The awards announced on Monday stem from a competitive process managed by the Cabinet of State Finance and Administration. An evaluation team spent six months evaluating nearly 100 proposals.
Fareed Saghir, managing director of Crystal Broadband Networks, among the recipients, said the awards would be “a giant step towards bridging the digital divide between urban and rural communities”.
Pennyrile Rural Electric Cooperative President and CEO Alan Gates said the funding “will alleviate some of the significant financial burden associated with building a rural fiber optic broadband network.” The Pennyrile Cooperative was also among the grant recipients.
The Beshear administration is also establishing a State Office of Broadband Development to formulate a master plan to provide universal Internet service throughout Kentucky.
Closing the broadband service gap has been a long and tortuous process in Kentucky. A statewide broadband project known as Kentucky Wired was launched years ago with bipartisan support, dating back to when Beshear’s father, Steve Beshear, was governor. The program eventually fell far behind schedule and went way over budget.