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Appalachian Cradle to Career Partnership joins Land O’ Lakes American Connection Project to increase broadband access in Kentucky’s Promise Zone

By Annie Zomaya, Partners for Rural Impact Content Development Specialist

A life without an internet connection is hard to imagine for most. But reliable access to broadband remains a challenge in rural places across the country. In Eastern Kentucky’s eight Promise Zone counties, home to an economy that consistently lags behind the rest of the nation, a small group of young people are working with a national rural policy powerhouse to improve connectivity.

American agricultural cooperative Land O’ Lakes, which most of us know as “the butter people,”  has been instrumental in moving national rural policy on many fronts. Now, the cooperative is tightening its focus on rural broadband, with the idea that all real progress in rural places must be undergirded with reliable, affordable internet. 

Funding from Land O’ Lakes created the American Connection Project and, subsequently, the American Connection Corps: a Fellowship of 50 corps members placed in rural communities all over the US. Their aim is to gather data and align efforts to bring affordable internet access to residents in rural places. Two of the ACC Fellows have been working in Kentucky’s Promise Zone counties for the past year. The Fellows, who were largely chosen based on the fact that they hail from Kentucky’s Appalachian counties, are hosted by Partners for Rural Impact.

Conner Thomas, from Rowan County and a graduate of The University of Kentucky; and Rhea Carter, from Knox County and a graduate of Berea College, are working within a three-pronged approach to bridge the connectivity gap: 1. Providing education in rural places for those who lack financial resources to learn how they can sign up for the Affordable Connectivity Program 2. Working directly with internet providers and local governments to reveal alignment in getting more people connected with an affordable price point; and 3. Compiling both quantitative and qualitative data for the American Connection Project, spearheaded by Land ‘O Lakes, to better inform rural broadband policy at the national level.

“In order to increase digital access and equity in our region, there must be a radical call for partnership amongst stakeholders across public and private sectors. Our local institutions and providers need to come together to ensure that all residents of Southeastern Kentucky, regardless of income or zip code, are connected to high speed, affordable internet,” Carter said. “The solution may look different for each community, but the public-private partnership is essential.”

“Through reframing the view on broadband as a vital service rather than a luxury, Kentucky can become a leader in the U.S. as it pertains to connectivity, specifically for the poor and disadvantaged,” Thomas said.  The economic, education, health outcomes, and social incentives are there, but what is lacking is the awareness and desire for this progress. Becoming an emerging leader in this new tech era will require the ebullient rollout of broadband service not only to our urban centers, but our long forgotten rural communities as well.”

Three additional Fellows onboarded this summer: Shelbi Hinkle from Richmond, Va. and hosted by Redbird Mission, will be focused on how broadband enhances STEM opportunities for students; Jordan Jones from London, Ky. and hosted by EKCEP, will be focused on the digital economy in eastern Kentucky; and Dr. Danielle King, also from London, Ky. and hosted by Thompson Scholars, will be focused on connectivity for the Town Branch community in Clay County and closing the internet gap for the students who live there.

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for reliable broadband became more apparent than ever, demonstrating the necessity of access to quality, high-speed broadband in both urban and rural areas. Even as pandemic restrictions lifted over the past year and a half, the public’s attention has not been pulled from the fact that rural places are at a distinct disadvantage, educationally, economically, and medically, due to the lack of connectivity. These disparities are now regularly referred to as the “Urban-Rural Digital Divide.” 

Kentucky’s Promise Zone and Broadband Disparities

Kentucky’s Promise Zone counties (Bell, Clay, Harlan, Knox, Letcher, Leslie, Whitley, and Perry) are the eight southeastern-most in the state and were designated as such in 2014 by the Obama administration in response to economic distress. In many places within these counties, broadband was once seen as a luxury.

Two specific data points illuminate the urban-rural divide in Kentucky. The first from U.S. Census Data, “households with a broadband internet subscription,” and the second, “Weighted Cost per Mbps,” from EducationSuperhighway.org

Nationally, around 85.2 percent of households in the U.S. have a subscription with an internet service provider. Kentucky is lagging, but only marginally, at 81.6 percent. However, data indicates in the Promise Zone counties only 71.5 percent of households subscribe to an internet service provider. These numbers suggest that almost one out of every three homes are shut out from the vast economic, social, health, and other opportunities afforded by high-speed internet access. 

In rural Kentucky, internet speeds are incredibly low at a high cost. Those who are part of the aforementioned 71.5 percent of households, in many instances have abysmal internet connection. In terms of Mbps (megabytes per second) of download speeds, Kentuckians are paying $5.64 for every megabyte of speed they receive. For instance, tasks like surfing the web, sending an email, or using a social network, it is recommended to have at least 25 Mbps download speed. Those who live in urban areas are in vastly different situations. For example, a Lexington resident can pay around $0.19 per Mbps for 400 Mbps download speeds. 

The density of customers in urban areas makes broadband investment much more lucrative for providers, often leaving rural areas out of plans for expansion. Awareness around this issue has gained attention as rural non-profits, and industries that rely on rural resources and employees to work in remote jobs are pushing for better connectivity where it is most sparse.

To try and open the door for improved educational outcomes and economic mobility, organizations throughout Kentucky’s Promise Zone are working on a cradle-to-career plan for youth in Appalachian Kentucky, dubbed AppC2C. Partners for Rural Impact as the backbone of the aligned organizations, initially worked with Lead For America and the American Connection Project to ensure that the ACC Fellows were placed in Kentucky’s Promise Zone. The AppC2C partners include Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program (EKCEP), Brushy Fork Leadership Institute, Save The Children, and the Federation of Appalachian Housing Enterprises (Fahe) with a shared mission of “All Appalachian Students Succeed.” The AppC2C Partners align around rural broadband policy with the understanding that connectivity is central to making any long-term educational and economic gains.

Partnership and policy: the keys to a connected future

Public-private partnerships in Kentucky counties have proven invaluable for securing grant funding, speed mapping, and bringing in competition to certain areas by the way of “Fiber Boards.” Fiber Boards are groups of stakeholders within counties working to be intimately aware of the complexities of the broadband situation, how to garner public support, and engaging crucial operational groundwork necessary for the success of expansion projects. For example, Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) is informing communities on “how to get fiber boards started in your community.”

Another key step for Kentucky’s PZ counties is getting all qualified individuals signed up for the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). Succeeding the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB), this program has been established as a long-term FCC program designed to help households afford the broadband they need for work, school, healthcare, and more. A benefit of $30 per month toward internet service is huge for families struggling with affordability. With new programs like Spectrum Internet 100, ACP qualifying households will be able to get speeds up to 100mbps down for completely free. However, the integral piece is awareness and getting individuals signed up in areas that are in dire need of higher connectivity. 

As the ACC Fellows continue their work in the Promise Zone, it is crucial that county officials and non-profits help to guide information and data gathering. The Fellows have the ear of Land O’ Lakes and  now eastern Kentucky has, yet, another platform to raise awareness on rural broadband disparities at the national level. 


KVEC and Students take over State Capitol

Over 250 students and educators from the 22 school district membership in the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative (KVEC) celebrated innovation the classroom with 25 display tables in the Frankfort Capitol on March 6.  Additionally, five individuals were honored in a Capitol Rotunda ceremony and students from three school districts presented before a senate committee.

The event showcased the amazing work going on in eastern Kentucky K-12 classrooms to state legislators, constitutional officers, and the general public.  

Former Governor Paul Patton presented the following awards in the Capitol Ceremony: The Galileo Award for inspirational and innovative teaching to Pam Burton of Johnson County and Orville Bennett of Lee County; the Proud Mountaineer Award is given to a mountaineer who is very proud of his heritage, has been a leader in the state and region, and is as strong supporter of public education went to Luther Deaton, formerly of Breathitt County, but now resides in Lexington and  L.D. Gorman of Hazard; and the Patton Education Advocacy Award to Bob Hutchison  of Paintsville.


The Henry Clay Awards were given to state legislators serving the districts as well to Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, and Attorney General Andy Beshear, who were in attendance for their willingness to serve. 


The Senate Agriculture Committee heard from Knott County students concerning their aquaculture project involving raising Koi fish: Paintsville Independent students on raising brown trout, and Lee County students on raising chickens.  The presentations were broadcast by KET.

Coverage of the successful event which includes photos and videos is on the www.theholler.org

Washington Post Article March 23, 2017

Trump’s budget targets rural development programs that provide lifeline in Appalachia


Lane Report Article on the Promise Zone

Kentucky Highlands Promise Zone sets record for investments announced

3-year total exceeds $453 million

LONDON, Ky. – More than $453 million in funding has been announced in the eight-county Kentucky Highlands Promise Zone since the federal designation began three years ago for Bell, Harlan, Letcher, Perry, Leslie, Clay, Knox and part of Whitley counties.

In addition, the number of private-sector, government and nonprofit partners has increased from 64 to 80.

“Investments announced in the Promise Zone for 2016 set a record,” said Jerry Rickett, president & CEO of Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation, which is coordinating and managing the federal Promise Zone. “There is more work to be done, but we continue to gain momentum as additional partnerships are forged, and we attract new private and public funding. As a result, there have been tremendous investments announced in areas such as jobs, education and training, tourism, technology, and health.”

KHIC issued a top 10 list of highlights for the $220 million in commitments made in the Promise Zone counties in 2016:

1. Promise Neighborhood Grant: Berea College will receive $30 million as one of only six Promise Neighborhood grant recipients in the country. This cradle-to-career initiative will fund work in three school districts in Knox County that will reach 25 schools and more than 10,000 students to improve the educational achievement and healthy development of children.

2. Appalachian Wildlife Center: A $12.5 million grant from the U.S. Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation Enforcement will help develop the Appalachian Wildlife Center in Bell County. It is expected to attract 638,000 annually visitors by the fifth year of operation and generate more than $1 billion in regional economic activity in the first 10 years.

3. Euro Sticks: Euro Sticks Group, a French manufacturer of ice cream and coffee stir sticks, selected Corbin as its presence in North America. It will create 90 jobs and invest $15 million.

4. Harlan Wood Products: Harlan County Industrial Development Authority received a $2.52 million grant for an alternative energy manufacturing center. Announced by Gov. Matt Bevin and Congressman Hal Rogers, the funds will be used to leverage an additional $10.5 million in private investment from Harlan Wood Products to create 30 to 35 new jobs and approximately 60 new indirect jobs.

5. Final Mile: Promise Zone communities have been collaborating and planning for ways to extend the KyWired middle-mile dark-fiber system into downtown areas, industrial parks and centers of commerce. This local “final-mile” system is critical for providing high-speed, high capacity Internet access.

6. Pineville Community Hospital: A USDA loan, along with strong partnerships among Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation, First State Financial and Pineville Community Hospital, have saved more than 300 jobs and created 12 new jobs at the hospital.

7. Uplift America Fund: The fund has awarded $50 million to Fahe and $25 million to KHIC to be used as loans for community facility projects. It leverages federal low-interest loans, bank financing and private grants to target much-needed capital to persistently low-wealth area, including the Promise Zone.

8. STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) camp: The University of Louisville and Partners for Education at Berea College helped 27 Promise Zone high school students attend a free summer camp at the Speed School of Engineering’s Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research.

9. Telemedicine: The federal Health Resources and Services Administration awarded Baptist Health Foundation Corbin, Inc. a $1.2 million grant for expanding its telehealth network with infrastructure and personnel.

10. Faith-Based Convening: More than 200 people attended the first faith-based economic development summit “Jobs Wanted: Faithful Investing in Appalachia’s People.” The Kentucky Highlands Promise Zone and SOAR held the event.

“Investments in the Kentucky Promise Zone have created jobs, generated income and improved economic conditions throughout eastern Kentucky,” said Jeff Jones, acting USDA Rural Development state director. “Collaboration between Kentucky Highlands and local partners stretching across these eight counties is essential to creating new opportunities in the Appalachian region.”

The Kentucky Promise Zone initiative gives the area a competitive advantage in applying for federal funding as well as additional assistance from several federal agencies.

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