Kentucky’s Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative came out of a local electrification co-op set up during the New Deal, and in 1949 it was expanded into a telephone co-op with more federal infrastructure money. Today, the PRTC has used Obama FCC funding to expand into public broadband delivery, wiring up all of Jackson and Owsley Counties, some of the poorest places in America, using a mule called “Old Bub” to haul fiber through inaccessible mountain passes and other extremely isolated places.
Fiber buildout has created an economic miracle for the people served by the PRTC; working with the nonprofit Teleworks USA (which trains people for remote work, especially tech support and customer service), the coop has created high-paying, sustainable jobs in the counties, taking local unemployment from 12-16% to below 5.5%. People work doing customer service and tech support for “Hilton Hotels, Cabela’s, U-Haul, Harry & David, and Apple,” and some people get paid to tutor wealthy Chinese children in conversational English (“We joke that there are going to be all these kids in China with Southern accents”).
The fiber buildout cost $50k/mile, a price-tag that reflects the coop’s commitment to serving every person in its region, no matter how remote. The result wasn’t just hundreds of good jobs paying much higher than the counties’ median wage, but also a closure of the regional “homework gap.”
The region’s blazing fast broadband has made it a desirable place for siting all kinds of businesses, bringing in both call-centers and a helicopter rotor factory. Cheap land and a trained workforce, combined with amazing internet have turned the county around.
The grant money and loans for the broadband service came in large part from Obama’s Connect America Fund, which Trump FCC chairman Ajit Pai renamed the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, riddling it with loopholes that allow the big cable and telcoms companies to reap massive federal subsidies by connected as few as one household in the regions targeted by the plan.
The region is still saddled with the long-term effects of poverty, especially opioid-related effects, thanks to aggressive targeting by opioid manufacturers like the Sackler family’s Purdue Pharma. In Owsley county, the school superintendent says more than a third of his students are not being raised by their parents, who are either “in jail, addicted or dead.” Teleworks has been able to alleviate some of this, helping those incarcerated over opioids get work with call-centers that do not require background checks.
Sue Halpern’s longread for the New Yorker is the kind of Appalachian coverage that I’d love to see more of: portraits of good people, hard done by, figuring it out through a combination of solidarity and smart federal spending targeting improved infrastructure, rather than subsidizing for-profit monopolies to do work we know they’ll skimp on, or cheat their way out of altogether.
Remember that preventing government provision of broadband is priority #1 for the Republican Party, from Red State legislatures that have banned cities from creating fiber networks to Trump’s FCC, which has blocked cities and states from creating broadband solutions to the nation’s deplorable, failing, overpriced network infrastructure, a creature of monopolists who would rather spend billions on stock buybacks than fiber.
Monopolists opposed electrification under the New Deal, just as today’s broadband monopolists would have spent lavishly to defend their right to starve the country of broadband. But fiber is the 21st Century’s copper, and it is a public utility, and monopolists will never deliver it.
Bernie Sanders has pledged $150b for universal high-speed for all. I am a donor to both Sanders’ and Warren’s campaigns.
Meanwhile, in April, the Trump Administration, led by the F.C.C.’s chair, Ajit Pai, announced its own broadband initiative, the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which, as critics have pointed out, is essentially a renaming and repurposing of an Obama-era program called the Connect America Fund. That program uses a portion of the Universal Service Fund, a pool of money collected from customers by their service providers and passed along to the F.C.C., to subsidize, among other things, phone and broadband service in places where it is not otherwise economical. Some companies receive more money back from the U.S.F. than they contribute. Others pay in more than they receive. P.R.T.C., for example, gets a U.S.F. subsidy every month that enables the coöperative to avoid passing along the real—and prohibitive—cost of service to its members, which Gabbard estimates to be two or three times what P.R.T.C. actually charges.
The big telecom companies also receive U.S.F. money, often taking advantage of a loophole in the law that lets them claim to be operating in an underserved area as long as they are providing service to a single customer in a rural census block. These “false positives,” Bloomfield told members of the House of Representatives in September, too often result in areas without service appearing on maps as if they were covered. (As a case in point, many of the residents of Lee County, Kentucky, which is adjacent to Jackson and Owsley Counties, while “served” by A.T. & T., are still only offered dial-up Internet.) The solution, Bloomfield told me, is better mapping. “It’s the No. 1 thing,” she said. “We really need to get carriers to really be honest about what areas they’re serving, what they’re not serving, and what the speeds are.” Better maps will enable U.S.F. money to be distributed more equitably, freeing up funds for coöperatives, municipalities, and smaller, regional companies to build the necessary infrastructure to deliver broadband to otherwise overlooked communities.
The One-Traffic-Light Town with Some of the Fastest Internet in the U.S. [Sue Halpern/New Yorker]
(Thanks, Mitch Wagner)
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