On a good day, citizens of Linefork, Kentucky, can watch a three-minute video on Facebook if they let the page buffer for ten minutes. On a bad day, when the wind is blowing too hard on the satellite, getting online means driving 25 minutes along a mountain ridge to Whitesburg, where the McDonald's has free WiFi.
This problem is hardly specific to Letcher County—a 2015 FCC report found that 53 percent of rural Americans can't access broadband internet, and 31 percent of rural America lacks access to speeds considered adequate for simple internet tasks. The problem is that while broadband-internet service, as the FCC has determined, is necessary to "keep pace with today's advanced, high-quality voice, data, graphics and video offerings" and is now considered a fundamental human right by the United Nations, it is largely still controlled by corporations. And the money providers would have to spend building the "middle mile" infrastructure to connect major service branches to houses in low-population small towns is simply not worth the return they'd receive in new customers.
Government subsidies exist, but they often aren't enough to fill this gap.
In many rural regions, the market is controlled by a single provider; without any competition, these companies have little incentive to improve or expand service and can set whatever prices they wish. In Appalachia, where service can also suffer because of the region's mountainous topography, the issue is more urgent than ever amid uncertainty about what will replace coal as the area's economic lifeline. Many believe access to the industry-creating possibilities of the internet is a vital prospect for residents.
But Letcher County isn't just waiting around for the government to come up with a solution. In December, led by county judge Jim Ward, a group of Letcher County citizens formed the Letcher County Broadband Board and held their first meeting the following month. Their goal was to find a way to create and own their own broadband network.
The crazy part is they may actually succeed.
"I see broadband access as just as necessary to opening up Appalachia now as the railroads were in the early 20th century" said Roland Brown, a lifelong resident of Letcher County, a senior network engineer at an IT company based in Lexington and vice chair of the Broadband Board. "Basically, we're trying to build a digital railroad."
Besides Brown, the board is made up of concerned volunteer citizens from all walks of life and the tech world. Izzy Broomfield is chief technology officer at Mountain Tech Media, a local cooperative video-production company. Broomfield's company struggles under the weight of the current broadband situation, especially network failures and slow upload speeds. Adding to the frustration is the rate providers charge—Broomfield pays as much for service as someone in Austin, but that hypothetical someone would also get significantly faster speeds.
"Anything you got to send out is going to be crippling," Broomfield said. "It doesn't make our business impossible, but it's a huge impediment."
One of the board's first actions was to officially survey the region to assess how deep the problem went. They found that 600 households in the Linefork area are totally unserved by any internet provider—or the speeds are too slow to even qualify as service. At an open forum, they learned what their county is really up against: High school and college students home on break can't view or submit assignments, adults can't go back to school by taking online classes, a young student at the Kentucky School for the Blind can't use the apps on his assistive iPad.
Beyond that, some people had been offered jobs working from home but couldn't take them because their speeds didn't meet the company's connection requirements. Others can't sell their homes because no one wants to buy where internet doesn't go.
Only a fifth of Letcher County households have connection speeds of ten Mbps per second download and one Mbps upload, according to data collected by the board, putting them solidly in the bottom 10 percent of community internet speeds nationwide.
AT&T provides the umbrella network that connects Letcher County to the broader internet—the backhaul in technical terms—but you can't get AT&T broadband service in most of the county because when the company built its infrastructure it often stopped at more populated areas and didn't build the "last mile" infrastructure that would allow everyone in every holler to buy internet from AT&T.
Local providers have more of a stake in serving nearby customers and have been providing most very rural areas with service, however slow it may be. AT&T did respond to a board inquiry, saying that if the board could find a local partner, someone else to build that last mile infrastructure, they would sell the board bandwidth at a reduced rate to run through that other company's network. (AT&T has some history of fighting initiatives that would open up rural Appalachian communities to new providers.)
To find such a partner, the board invited all of the local providers—including TVS Cable, InterMountain Cable, Birch Communications, and Mikrotec Internet Services—to a meeting. "They were very hesitant," said Brown, adding that some of these providers still have the older generation's attitude of being focused on television cable driving sales, rather than internet.
"They kind of came in with an attitude of like, 'Why are you trying to put us out of business?'" said Brown. "It was challenging."
The board decided its top priority would be those in the community who were currently completely unserved. So the board returned to the providers with this more specific plea. This time the businesses were more receptive but still demurred taking on the investment risk of creating new infrastructure.
"I see broadband access as just as necessary to opening up Appalachia now as the railroads were in the early 20th century."
David Thacker, assistant manager for family-owned TVS Cable, says his company provides broadband service of at least 50 Mbps, but that the unserved parts of Letcher County are outside its service area. "We will work with the Letcher County Broadband Board in any way we can," he told me. "We invest a lot in providing the desired broadband speeds and service that our customers want.
"They were looking at it as a profit decision," argued Brown. "So finally we said, 'OK. We're just going to have to go out and build it ourselves.'"
But what to build and how? A powerful wireless transmitter was an option but not ideal due to the mountainous terrain and thick foliage in the hamlets around Whitesburg. They looked at fiber-optic cable run straight into homes, the industry standard. But to run miles of cable from the county seat to each individual home also didn't make sense. Eventually they settled on a combination: They would use a fixed wireless transmitter to shoot a signal from Whitesburg out to the Linefork community. From there, they would contract with a business that could build the fiber connections to people's homes.
As for financing, in March the board applied for a $1.5 million grant from the Department of Agriculture's Rural Utility Service, which supports broadband projects in rural areas. The board hopes it will cover bringing service to the unserved communities, and from there, the reach can be expanded to the "underserved" citizens—all those struggling with slow, unreliable, or overpriced service. The board is also deep into pursuing other avenues of funding like a low-interest federal loan paid back over 30 years or a "P-3" partnership between the local government and a private corporation.
And they're not alone. Letcher County is just one of 13 communities in Kentucky with broadband issues that are banding together to seek alternative solutions outside of the traditional provider-customer model. In 2015, West Virginia's state attorney filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of thousands who were receiving significantly slower speeds than they were paying for; just this month Frontier is rolling out promised speed increases. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican West Virginian senator, introduced legislation this month that would funnel broadband investments to rural communities that need it most.
These initiatives could have massive effects on the future of Appalachia. As jobs in extractive industries continue to dwindle, more and more engaged Appalachians wonder what industry will come to replace them. Some believe the best option is tech.
Two companies are already in the wings, waiting to serve east Kentucky by offering remote tech jobs. BitSource Kentucky retrains out-of-work coal miners for tech jobs by teaching them to code, a transition that makes a lot more sense than you might think as contemporary coal mining had already become so computerized. TeleWorks, which connects rural Appalachian job seekers with companies hiring for remote gigs at places like Amazon and Apple, pays $10 to $15 an hour—good money in rural Kentucky.
The Broadband Board is optimistic that its efforts will be an important first step toward a future with tech more at the center. Brown acknowledges they are still at the beginning of the fight. But he's gearing up for the long haul.
"It will level our isolation," he said. "It's a battle for our economic survival."
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