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.