Contract signing

Calloway County Deputy Judge-Executive Gina Winchester, left, County Attorney Bryan Ernstberger and Judge-Executive Kenny Imes sign a contract last week with WK&T to expand internet access.

MURRAY — Calloway County is one step closer toward making high-speed internet service available to unserved and underserved residents.

Reliable internet service is currently available to everyone living inside the Murray city limits, and many neighborhoods and individual homes in the outer reaches of the county can also get it, but Judge-Executive Kenny Imes said no companies are providing high-speed broadband service to an area surrounding Murray. Because Murray is in the center, he calls the underserved area the “donut.” Imes has made solving this problem a major part of his agenda since first taking office in the fall of 2018, and the county has been in talks with the Mayfield-based WK&T (West Kentucky and Tennessee Telecommunications) for months. 

In a special-called meeting last Thursday, the Calloway County Fiscal Court unanimously voted to enter into an agreement with WK&T to bring reliable, fiber-fast internet to all unserved and underserved residents in the county, while also providing free services to all the Calloway County Fire-Rescue stations within the cooperative’s existing and future footprint in the county. The contract states that by expanding its network to the fire stations, WK&T will also make the fiber-to-the-premises, broadband internet access service available to residents and businesses located in underserved areas of the county. The fiber-to-the-premises network provides synchronous speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second, and the speed and quality of the service is always the same for both uploads and downloads, according to WK&T. The company also said fiber-to-the-premises service is faster and more reliable than any other type of broadband service.

“We are excited to partner with Calloway County to equip their fire stations with fiber-fast internet and to provide underserved residents and businesses with access to technology they so desperately need,” said WK&T CEO Trevor Bonnstetter in a news release. “Reliable, fiber internet is a life-changing and life-saving resource. We are looking forward to offering it to more of Calloway County.”

“Being able to partner with a local and trusted provider like WK&T to bring reliable, underground, to the home, fiber-fast internet services into rural Calloway County is a win for everyone,” Imes said. “In addition, knowing our volunteer firefighters have access to this invaluable resource for free when they need it is a comfort. By signing this agreement, the Fiscal Court will be able to pursue federal and state funding sources to provide additional services to residents and business owners who have not had access or very limited service to fiber internet before.”

By signing the contract, the county has agreed to pay WK&T $6.2 million as an advance payment to fund the expansion of the company’s network and to purchase fiber-to-the-premises internet service for the fire stations for the next 10 years. WK&T will also contribute $6.2 million to the first phase of the project. When the first phase of the project is complete, all county residents and businesses outside of Murray are expected to have access to the service except for those located in the northeastern part of the county.

According to Karen Jackson-Furman, chief operating officer for WK&T, the first phase of the build will pass an estimated 4,274 homes and businesses with a 100% fiber network and cover 236 road miles.

“The project will allow an estimated 4,274 Calloway County residents and businesses outside of Murray, Kentucky, to have access to WK&T’s fiber-fast internet service, with the exception of those living in the northeastern part of the county,” Jackson-Furman said in a news release. “WK&T will pursue future grant opportunities to expand service to this part of the county in a second phase of the project.”

The contract says WK&T will use “its best efforts” to obtain an additional $4.35 million in grants in order to extend the broadband network to the northeastern part of Calloway County. If the company has not been able to obtain that additional money through grants after three years, then WK&T and the county would each contribute $2.175 million to finance the rest of the expansion. The second phase of the project will pass an estimated 1,026 homes and businesses and will cover approximately 89 road miles of fiber.

During the meeting, Bonnstetter said he believed WK&T would be able to obtain grants to complete the work in the northeast area, but if the company were to start work in that area before obtaining one, that would kill the prospect of a grant paying for the project. He said WK&T has historically been quite successful at obtaining grants and he didn’t think it would take three years, but a time frame had to be stated in the contract.

“If for some reason, we can’t get state or federal (funds), we come back to the table and we work on that area,” Bonnstetter said.

Bonnstetter said that from WK&T’s experience, the company does not believe a grant proposal for the so-called “donut” area surrounding Murray would be successful, so that is why the company’s plan is to make that area the first phase of the project. The county has not yet decided exactly how it will pay for its $6.2 million share, but magistrates could choose to use funds received from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) or other state or federal grants if they could be secured.

“With the ARPA money and the $300 million the state legislature approved (for broadband access) and the infrastructure in Congress, surely (there are multiple sources) for grants and things we can apply for, so this won’t be on the Calloway County taxpayer’s back,” Imes said during the meeting.

In order to fulfill the contract, the county will have to certify that it can fulfill its $6.2 million obligation by Dec. 31 of this year. If it unable to certify by then that it has sufficient funds to make the payments, the agreement would be null and void, the contract states.

During a public comment portion of the meeting, Sandy and Paul Sasso told magistrates broadband internet is badly needed where they live. Sandy said that after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she was very grateful she was retired and no longer teaching because it would have been impossible to effectively do her job over Zoom. She said two bars is the best they can get on a Verizon hotspot even with a tower six miles away, and she also said they have neighbors with children who had to be out of school during the pandemic, and it was very difficult for them to work from home. She added that she and Paul have some health issues and would like to take advantage of telehealth conferences with their doctors, but it just isn’t a viable option for them right now. 

Sheila Phillips also spoke, saying her husband could not bring his work home because of the unreliable internet in their area.

Imes said the move would be very important for the local economy, especially considering outside companies that might want to relocate here. He compared the need for reliable internet access to the need residents used to have for other utilities we now take for granted. 

“(It will also help) property values,” Imes said. “Can you imagine going out now and trying to buy a home that didn’t have electricity or a septic system?”

Imes added that this agreement was not meant to subsidize a specific group of county residents, but was necessary to get all county residents and businesses on an equal playing field.

Like many other products currently having supply-chain problems, Bonstetter said it is hard to get fiber right now, so it would be best if the project could start as early as possible. He said any residents included in the coverage area would have access to full service from WK&T, including telephone lines and other products.