CALLOWAY COUNTY – With several areas of Calloway County still without means to get reliable, high-speed internet service, Judge-Executive Kenny Imes says he is hoping a potential grant to West Kentucky and Tennessee Telecommunications Cooperative (WK&T) can help solve that problem.
Karen Jackson-Furman, chief operating officer for WK&T, said the Federal Communications Commission’s current definition of being served by high-speed internet is if a customer can achieve download speeds of at least 25 Mbps and upload speeds of at least 3 Mbps.
“So we’re looking at the parts of Calloway County that don’t have access to anything like that,” she said.
WK&T has applied for a $5.54 million grant that might be available through the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act. If the grant is awarded and the project moves forward, Jackson-Furman said WK&T would be extending its fiber optic service to approximately 5,300 additional locations. It is estimated that the construction would take approximately three years and would cover approximately 400 road miles, she said.
“It’s an Economic Development Administration grant and it’s part of the CARES Act,” Jackson-Furman said. “The EDA has some of this money to award, and WK&T has applied for a grant of $5.54 million. We think the project would be north of $16.7 million – that’s what we think the project to build out the rest of Calloway County would cost. If we’re awarded the grant, that would be $5.54 million, and then Calloway County has agreed to contribute $5 million and WK&T would be responsible for anything above that. So that would be another $5 million-plus.”
Jackson-Furman said WK&T applied for the grant over the summer, and they were told on Sept. 1 that the application was still under review.
“In the meantime, we added service to six Wi-Fi hotspots in the county in the underserved areas, and that’s provided a little relief for some folks in Calloway County,” she said. “We get phone calls and reports of that occasionally where that’s been super helpful for folks in the county.”
While much of the county does have adequate internet service right now, WK&T is very much interested in stepping in to serve those areas who do not have access, Jackson-Furman said.
“Basically, Calloway County understands they are at a disadvantage with so much of the county not having access to high-speed internet,” she said. “WK&T provides service to some of Calloway County, and I know Murray Electric System does a real good job serving the city with fiber (optic service), so everyone that has access to that has access to high-speed internet. We definitely want to stay out of the city of Murray since they are already served, and we are not interested in any kind of project that would overlap Murray Electric in any way.”
For example, Jackson-Furman said she lives in Murray outside the MES service area, but is in Spectrum’s service area. She said satellite service is sometimes available in otherwise hard-to-reach areas, and people can sometimes use their mobile plans, but they often run into trouble with reaching their data limit. Others may have internet at home, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, data caps could be a problem when they are working all day from home and their children are attending virtual classes online at the same time, she said.
Imes said the lack of service in some areas of the county has frustrated him for years. Not only does he hear frequent complaints from constituents, but he has personally experienced the problem where he lives in Almo. He said that approximately a third of the county’s area is underserved. At an estimated 4,400 homes, he said that amounted to about a third of the county’s residents as well.
Imes said the most underserved areas are the Almo, Dexter and Hico communities. With those homes covering about 400 road miles, it is not cost-effective for most telecommunications to provide service to those homes, Imes said.
“I want people to really understand why it costs what it does and why we’re looking at it (as a county project),” Imes said. “I’ve called Spectrum, WK&T, Murray Electric and Mediacom. Mediacom runs on the poles on the right-of-way next to my property line, but they won’t service me at my house. If you call AT&T and try to talk to a person and explain the situation, they’re all the same. You spend 30 minutes on the phone just to speak to a live person. Then they’ll tell you they’ll come out and measure and then they’ll call you back and you’ve wasted two or three weeks getting a guy out there (and they’ll say), ‘Well, you’re not in our service area.’ I’ve heard that from every one of them.
“They’ll be sitting in my driveway, and I’ll point and say, ‘Your lines are hanging on my pole right there.’ But my side of 641 is on the east side, and even though the lines run on the east side until you get to Coles Campground Road and then they turn and go west, I can’t get service.”
“People that live right along the lake, like Panorama Shores, can get good high-speed internet, but here I am a quarter-mile from the city limits and I can’t get it,” he added.
Imes said he was encouraged that WK&T’s application is currently under review. He said he had reached out to the offices of both of Kentucky’s U.S. senators and to Congressman James Comer to try to get any support for the grant he could.
“Our legislative leaders are beginning to understand how important this is, especially if you’re in rural Kentucky (whether it’s) west Kentucky or east Kentucky,” Imes said. “They’re all getting it now, and they understand that the Kentucky Wired project, even though it was sold as coming to your front door, it’s really just the middle mile, and the counties or somebody is going to have to step in and do the last mile. That what we’re after – the last mile that gets (high-speed internet) to your house or front door.”
Given how many local children have relied on the internet during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as how many adults have needed it to work from home, high-speed access is seemingly more important than ever, Imes said. He added that it isn’t just an educational and economic necessity, but also an important tool in serving patients as telehealth becomes more widely used.