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High-Speed Internet Transforms Local Economy in East KY Counties


Monday, January 6, 2020   

MCKEE, Ky. -- It's been five years since a rural phone cooperative in Eastern Kentucky completed the installation of super-fast, fiber-optic cables across two counties, giving every home and business in the region high-speed internet. Today, advocates say that $50 million investment has brought an influx of jobs to the region, mainly in tech support.

Keith Gabbard is CEO of the Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative in Jackson County, who spearheaded the effort. He said the area's unemployment rate has shrunk from 16% to nearly 5%.

"In the two counties we serve, we've seen over 1,000 jobs created. In both of our counties, over half the people actually typically drive to a surrounding county to work. So, that's the norm," Gabbard said. "Some of these people are working for Apple, they're doing tech support for Apple; they're working for a lot of different companies. And all of 'em are paying more than a lot of the minimum-wage things that are available around here."

Fiber-optic cables transmit electronic information at faster rates than standard copper wires. According to the Fiber Broadband Association, around 18 million households in the U.S. have this type of broadband service.

For some residents of Jackson and Owsley counties, high-speed internet has changed life in other ways. Gabbard said local veterans who can't make the long trip to the nearest Veterans Administration clinic can now speak with healthcare providers by video conference at the local public library, where his company has enabled free internet access.

"So, we worked out a partnership with our local public library. That's something the veterans are using more and more; it's really been well-received there," he said. "Veterans are spending all day to go to VA clinic in Lexington, Kentucky."

While he acknowledged broadband can't solve all the region's woes, Gabbard said it's bringing real opportunities to many Appalachian families.

"$50 million - we built a thousand miles of fiber at about $50,000 a mile. I have to say, that's probably the best investment our company ever made," he said. "We did not envision how important it would be when we first started."

He said the money for the project came from various sources, including federal grants and loans.

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