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High-Speed Internet Key to Economic Recovery in Appalachia

A rural phone co-op expanded high-speed broadband in Appalachia, bringing hundreds of telework jobs to the region. (Adobe stock)
A rural phone co-op expanded high-speed broadband in Appalachia, bringing hundreds of telework jobs to the region. (Adobe stock)
December 30, 2019

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - A rural phone cooperative based in Appalachia has brought some of the fastest Internet in the United States to mountain communities, which has led to what some call an economic miracle in the depressed region.

Since 2009, the Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative connected 18,000 people in Jackson and Owsley counties in Kentucky, according to Keith Gabbard, CEO of PRTC. He said the affordable, faster broadband helped bring call-center employment to hundreds of residents served by the co-op.

"In the two counties we serve, we've seen over 1,000 jobs created," Gabbard said; "work from home jobs, partly due to the great Internet, partly due to these teleworks hubs and the great people who staff them."

He said companies including U-Haul and Apple now offer training for tech-support positions, which has helped cut the unemployment rate in the region from 16% to 5% over the past 10 years.

Gabbard said the success of the program bodes well for other rural counties to look to high-speed Internet as an economic-development tool. Many of the jobs in the Kentucky counties where PRTC expanded its broadband offer good salaries and benefits and the ability to work from home, which Gabbard said has transformed the lives of those in the region who had only been able find minimum-wage jobs with long commutes.

He said the installation was expensive - costing about $50 million dollars in grants, loans and capital, for a thousand miles of fiber optic cable - but well worth it.

"Probably the best investment our company ever made," he said. "We did not envision how important it would be when it first started. It's not just about jobs; it's about education, it's about health care."

He said the expanded broadband has also brought telemedicine to a region hit hard by opioid addiction and the collapse of the coal industry. He points out that PRTC has even put together a program in Jackson County to provide medical care for veterans.

Diane Bernard, Public News Service - WV