FRANKFORT (AP) — Kentucky took a step toward closing its digital divide Monday, when Gov. Andy Beshear announced $203 million in broadband investments — with the promise of more to come — to connect areas with no internet access or chronically slow service.
The plan looks to combine a major infusion of federal funds backed by Democratic leaders in Congress with matching money to attain a long-running, bipartisan goal that has long eluded Kentucky's leaders.
Previous efforts have fallen short of bringing the internet to remote parts of the state, where leaders have long viewed it as a key to future economic viability. The persistent lack of access in some 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 split into 46 grant awards to 12 internet service providers and local governments spanning 35 counties. The grants will deliver reliable internet to more than 34,000 Kentucky families and businesses, the governor said.
“Everybody needs it," Beshear said. "Everybody deserves to have access to it.”
The investments include $89.1 million from the state's share of federal pandemic aid that state lawmakers earmarked for broadband expansion, Beshear said. Grant recipients pledged to match those contributions, raising total investments for this round to more than $203 million.
The COVID-19 pandemic put a spotlight on the crucial role high-speed internet plays in the state’s education and economic systems.
“High-speed, reliable internet is not just the infrastructure of the future, it’s the necessary infrastructure right now," the governor said at a news conference. "It’s just as important as roads, 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 to future job creation.”
The grants announced Monday are meant to lower construction costs to extend internet to harder-to-reach areas, with the focus on unserved areas of Kentucky.
State Budget Director John Hicks called it the “first chapter of many chapters” as the state distributes funding to expand broadband service.
In 2021, Kentucky lawmakers agreed to use $300 million of federal pandemic relief money to extend broadband service. It reflected a bipartisan agreement between the Republican-dominated legislature and Beshear, a Democrat.
The Bluegrass State still has about $210 million remaining in federal pandemic aid to allocate for broadband expansion. Combined with matching requirements, a minimum of $600 million will support the extension of high-speed internet, Beshear’s office said in a news release. The state also expects another infusion of broadband money from the federal infrastructure law.
“We’re going to have the best shot in the history of the commonwealth to provide internet access to every single Kentuckian,” Beshear said.
Asked how long it will take to achieve universal, reliable internet access statewide, the governor predicted “dramatic improvement” in the next four to five years.
Beshear also stressed that affordability is part of the broadband equation.
“We’re still going to have to continue to keep our eye on affordability,” he said. “Just getting it somewhere, if people can’t afford it, isn’t enough.”
The awards announced Monday stemmed from a competitive process managed by the state Finance and Administration Cabinet. An evaluation team spent six months evaluating nearly 100 proposals.
Fareed Saghir, general manager of Crystal Broadband Networks, among the recipients, said the awards will be a "giant leap toward 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 also was among the grant recipients.
Beshear's administration also is setting up a state Office of Broadband Development to formulate a master plan to provide universal internet service across Kentucky.
Bridging the gaps in broadband service has been a long and tortuous process in Kentucky. A statewide broadband project known as Kentucky Wired was launched years ago with bipartisan support, stretching back to when Beshear's father, Steve Beshear, was governor. The program ultimately fell well behind schedule and went considerably over budget.