Deploying Fiber in Appalachia: a Study of Fiber Deployment, Challenges, Funding, and the Impacts of Broadband Connectivity in Eastern Kentucky
Posted: 2 Aug 2021
Date Written: August 2, 2021
We present insights from a fiber network deployment in Eastern Kentucky. The Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative (PRTC) operates FTTH services in Jackson and Owsley counties. PRTC is part of a group of 5 companies in the region that maintains a 360-mile fiber ring, across 9 counties in the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment (EKCEP) Local Workforce Area (LWA). A similar group operates Appalachian Wireless cellphone service in the region, which has been in operation for over 25 years and has approximately 130,000 customers. In this paper, we provide a brief history of PRTC, a case study of the deployment of the fiber network, and a summary of the impacts of the fiber deployment.
PRTC has been operating in the region, in Jackson and Owsley counties, since 1950. Originally constituted as an entity that would provide the region with POTS, the company has steadily evolved through the decades, rebuilding its networks many times to stay up to date with current technologies. The latest example being the deployment of a fiber network for the region that provides fiber internet to residents, at network speeds available in many “well-connected” urban areas of the country. The degree of adoption – as of March 2021, 5709 customers across the 2 counties, and an additional 1030 customers in neighboring counties – indicates that there is indeed a market for such services where we are often told that demand is soft or does not exist. The impacts of the deployment are immediately observable. Over 1100 Tech or related jobs have been added in the region through 2 workforce hubs in EKCEP. Educational access has improved with individuals being able to attend online classes. Veteran telehealth services are being provided through a specialized pilot with the Lexington, KY VA hospital with a customized videoconferencing room at the Jackson County Public Library. The local library and schools have fiber connectivity (the school system has been fiber connected since 2005). We present more details about these impacts in the full paper.
There are several takeaways from our study: 1) like the building of the electric and telephone infrastructures in relatively remote areas, the digital divide isn’t going to get “magically solved” unless there is a concerted effort through public-private initiatives and partnerships, beginning with significant Federal investment; 2) the customer base of PRTC (and Appalachian Wireless) indicates that once the initial investment deployment hurdle is overcome there is indeed a base of customers for these services, which in turn challenges the expressed point-of-view of larger telecom operators; 3) local operators and community leaders have a strong sense of what is needed in their communities, and with appropriate support can deploy the services that are needed; 4) at the same time, even for creative entrepreneurial enterprises such as PRTC there is a significant burden presented by the complexity of current Government funding mechanisms – PRTC has demonstrated great creativity and foresight in utilizing all available resources – but simplifying the funding mechanism would greatly benefit entities nationwide looking to expand network capacity; and 5) the larger impacts of deploying broadband are observable over a short term, indicating that the long-term ROI is well beyond money recovered through services sold. Although our study looks at a specific context, we believe that many of the insights apply to other contexts nationwide as well as throughout the world.
We expect to return to this specific context again after 5 years and then 10 years to study the long-term impacts of the fiber deployment. We do not yet have enough data on specific impact areas that may see significant effects long-term: 1) to what extent has the fiber network impacted entrepreneurship? Are there additional insights as far considering other dimensions therein such as small business funding? 2) beyond that which is presented in the paper, what is the impact of the improved network connectivity on local businesses? Are there services that have been enabled through enhanced services? 3) What is the impact on digital literacy? Digital literacy ranges from access to online services (ex: filing taxes, applying for jobs) to civic engagement (ex: being able to participate in an online commentary process); and 4) We have anecdotal evidence that there are people returning to the area while maintaining their remote WFH jobs. Is this a trend, how will this look in the long-term?
Keywords: Broadband, fiber, Internet access, Policy, Workforce
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