Kentucky has given millions to broadband co-ops. Here’s how two of them will connect rural residents

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Kentucky awarded millions of dollars to a number of electric and telephone cooperatives earlier this summer to expand broadband Internet access in rural communities. Some of these rural co-ops had already been building internet connections for years before receiving this funding, likening the initiative to when co-ops were building power lines more than 50 years ago.

Last year, the state legislature passed two bills allocating $300 million in federal funding — from the American Rescue Plan Act — to expand broadband access in rural Kentucky. Kentucky Cabinet of Finance and Administration reward more than $89 million in June to local governments, utility cooperatives and private companies to bring internet connectivity to underserved rural communities. These winners provide matching funding for these state grants, furthering investment in the projects.

Pennyrile Rural Electric Cooperative has been building fiber optic cable lines – often considered the first form of internet connection – for rural homes and businesses since November with funding received from local counties.

Pennyrile Rural Electric Cooperative Vice President Brent Gilkey said the utility is building 50 miles of fiber optic cable per month and eventually hopes to expand it to 100 miles per month.

“Just like the electrical system, it couldn’t, it can’t be done overnight,” Gilkey said. “It has to be done with time and more money.”

The co-op is receiving more than $13.8 million to connect approximately 5,600 homes and businesses in Caldwell, Christian, Lyon, Todd and Trigg counties. The utility is working with Hopkinsville Electric System for construction, placing fiber cable directly to utility poles.

Gibson Electric Membership Corporation in far western Kentucky and northwest Tennessee began building fiber optic connections in 2017 with a grant from the Tennessee government. With more than $4 million granted by Kentucky, the cooperative plans to build fiber optics for approximately 1,700 households and businesses in Fulton, Carlisle and Hickman counties.

Gibson Electric Membership Corporation vice president Charles Phillips said the nonprofit nature of co-ops allows them to invest in rural communities where for-profit businesses may see fewer incentives.

“That particular area and the fact that it’s so rural really lent itself to the need for another way to deliver broadband, and the electric co-ops, and I would say telephone co-ops, really ramped up,” said Phillips.

Phillips said there are fewer than three households or businesses per mile for the area they serve with Kentucky grant funding, while large ISP companies would need many times that density. households to make a broadband project profitable. In the recent past, rural communities in western Kentucky and throughout the Ohio Valley overcame challenges to get broadband due to a perceived lack of profitability in connecting these communities.

Phillips said the jump in Internet speed that cooperative customers will see once connected is substantial: up to one gigabit per second of upload and download speed, or 1000 megabits per second. It takes between 5 and 8 megabits per second of download speed to stream HD movie. He said that the cooperative also participates in federal programs to make Internet access more affordable.

“Having a cable on the road is one thing, but being able to afford it in your home is where the rubber really hits the road,” Phillips said.

Penny Rural Electric Cooperative and Gibson Electric Membership Corporation are both awaiting contracts detailing the details of the use of Kentucky Infrastructure Authority grants before moving forward with broadband projects.

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