A world’s worth of resources can be accessed at the touch of a finger, but only if you have internet access. As with many things in our daily life, the pandemic quickly drove home the fact that internet accessibility is the key to not only a strong economy but a good quality of life. Our state has historically lagged when it comes to investing in technological infrastructure. This is partially because so much of our population is in rural areas that are hard to reach, making it unprofitable for private business. Yet, internet accessibility is essential. Just like roads, broadband technology connects us to educational opportunities, work, health care, and family and friends.
In 2017, Kentucky ranked 47th in the nation in broadband speeds and capacity. This places us at a major disadvantage in comparison with neighboring states, and makes creating opportunities extremely difficult. The problem existed long before 2017 though. Most recently, the state has invested more than $1.5 billion through the KentuckyWired program to deliver broadband to what is described as the “middle mile.” The middle mile consists of government offices, universities, community colleges, state police posts, state parks, and other government institutions to the global internet. Currently, KentuckyWired has delivered broadband to 98% of its target group.
With the middle mile in our rearview mirror, it is time to turn our attention to the last mile and making it possible to deliver broadband to the people who live in our most technologically underserved and unserved areas.
In 2020, the legislature approved HB 362, legislation that created the Broadband Deployment Fund to harness both public and private resources to provide a targeted approach. Agencies, companies, and organizations can apply for grants through this fund for broadband projects that would specifically benefit unserved and underserved areas of the state. Money for the fund can come from a variety of sources, including state and federal dollars. The fund is administered by the Kentucky Infrastructure Authority and is designed to assist with the construction, development, or improvement of broadband infrastructure and broadband services. Grant applicants must meet specific eligibility criteria, including that they pay at least 50% of the project cost.
While HB 362 provided the framework for the Broadband Deployment Fund, the actual funding for the program was not approved until this session. We invested $250 million in federal COVID-relief funds to the fund as part of HB 320. In addition to funding, HB 320 also allows electric cooperatives regulated by the Public Service Commission to qualify for the financial assistance available through the Broadband Development Fund. I was proud to support this bill because, as one of my colleagues said during debate on the bill, this measure will help us reach the last house on the last mile of road.
We included another $50 million in federal COVID-relief funds for broadband in HB 382; this portion of funding is set aside specifically for economic development purposes.
As always, I hope you will feel free to contact me with any questions or issues. I can be reached here at home anytime or through the toll-free message line in Frankfort at 1-800-372-7181. Please feel free to email me at Samara.Heavrin@lrc.ky.gov. If you would like more information about this or any other legislation passed during the 2021 Regular Session, please visit the legislature’s website legislature.ky.gov.