BY BEN JOHNSON
Can Kentucky transform its coal culture economy to become “Silicon Holler?” Lexington is set to host the Fiber for the New Economy Conference September 15-18. Prior regional conference host sites have included Chicago, IL and Springfield, MA. The conference will focus on a 12-state region (Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia).
Technology is an economic development driver and the conference focuses on “the relationship between broadband, economic development, and job creation.”
Speakers at the conference include elected officials, economic development professionals, industry leaders, city planners, educators and broadband activists. Up for discussion will be how Lexington can become the next American gigabit city with broadband up to 100-times faster than current speeds.
The experts will specifically focus on KentuckyWired — a statewide, open-access broadband network that would connect all of Kentucky to a fiber-optic infrastructure of high-speed Internet service.
On Thursday, September 17, at 12:15, there is a session devoted to “Lexington: The Next Gigabit City – How we’re making it happen and The Kentucky Wired Story.”
In August, Governor Steve Beshear signed an executive order giving the green light to launch construction of KentuckyWired with hopes it will be completed in three years.
KentuckyWired will provide the “middle mile” of the new broadband network while the “last mile” will be left to communities or Internet service providers to connect directly to homes.
“Consider the KentuckyWired project to be similar to building a highway through the state, and then local communities will build out the roads leading from the highway to neighborhoods and businesses,” said Deputy Secretary of the Finance and Administration Cabinet Steve Rucker at KentuckyWired’s kickoff event in Hazard. “We need our communities to make plans now for building those ‘last miles’ to citizens.”
Construction, maintenance and operation of the 3,000 mile fiber network will be managed through a 30-year public-private-partnership (P3) led by Australian-based investment firm Macquarie Capital.
Gov. Beshear’s executive order created the Kentucky Communications Network Authority (KCNA) governing board to oversee the project in the public’s interest.
The fiber P3 agreement is the largest in the country and is estimated to cost $324 million. The General Assembly allocated $30 million in the 2014 legislative session and $23.5 million in federal funds have been appropriated.
The private partners will fund the rest and will hire Kentuckians as at least 60 percent of their employees.
“Kentucky’s Internet speed and accessibility have lagged behind the rest of the nation far too long,” Gov. Beshear said at the December announcement of KentuckyWired. “This partnership puts us on the path to propel the commonwealth forward in education, economic development, health care, public safety and much more.”
In 2012, Akamai’s State of the Internet Report found that Kentucky had the third slowest Internet connection speeds in the U.S. Another different study by Blue Fire Broadband found that Kentucky ranks 39th in price per Megabyte per second at $3.95 Mbps.
According to Internet metric company Ookla, the average download speed in Lexington is at 16.2 Mbps compared to the U.S. average of 37.1 Mbps — ranking in the middle of the pack of Kentucky cities.
Mayor Jim Gray has long said it is a priority for Lexington to make the digital leap into the elite class of gigabit cities. Prior to his tenure, his predecessor, Lexington Mayor Jim Newberry stressed the Three H platform, “Healthcare, Horses, and High Technology.”
“Every city is in a competitive chase for talent and investment and jobs,” says Gray. “It is essential just to stay competitive.”
Gray points to the denseness of Lexington and its status as a university city as major reasons it needs better broadband speeds.
“Lexington is a university city, with a highly educated workforce that can leverage greater bandwidth speeds to create new technologies, new ideas and new markets,” Gray said.
Internet problems are even worse in Eastern Kentucky where 23 percent of people don’t have access to broadband and 30 percent don’t have access that meets FCC standards.
Strengthening Our Appalachian Region (SOAR), a government initiative to diversify the Eastern Kentucky economy, sees KentuckyWired as an opportunity for restoration in Coal Country.
“Today’s businesses require round-the-clock availability to markets around the world. Every inventory record, product order and accounting system demands strong Internet service in order to communicate with customers, suppliers and headquarters,” said Jared Arnett, executive director of SOAR, at the Hazard event. “Spotty, overpriced Internet service repels new business and stifles entrepreneurship. KentuckyWired is bringing fiber to our communities, and it can’t get here fast enough. It’s a literal economic lifeline.”
The construction of KentuckyWired will start in the 73 counties that are part of SOAR and will eventually make its way to all 120 counties.
“Access to high-speed, broadband Internet resources is vital to students, teachers, business people and commerce,” said Bob King, president of the Council on Post Secondary Education. “High-speed access eliminates physical, geographic and academic isolation and will open up the SOAR region to the world.”
As for affordability, the fiber network will be “open access” — meaning communities, partnerships, private companies or other groups all have access to offer the “last mile” to homes and businesses to ensure a competitive environment.
“A high-speed, open access network positions Kentucky to provide competitive 21st century Internet services to homes and businesses, which will rapidly increase the state’s capacity for long-term economic growth and give the users greater choice among service providers and product platforms,” said Nick Butcher, head of North American Infrastructure at Macquarie Capital.
Last week, it was announced that Google Fiber is looking at Louisville (Google Fiber offers speeds up to 1,000 Mbps compared to Louisville’s current 11.9 Mbps average).
Louisville is only in “exploratory” status, but by September 11, Louisville mayor Greg Fischer had convened a Google Fiber infrastructure meeting at Metro Hall and had announced more details about the Google Fiber options via Periscope.
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