Kentucky grapples with broadband mapping, terrain hurdles

Kentucky, which only established its broadband office last summer, is putting in some hard and in some cases unique work to enhance internet access and prepare for the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program.

In an interview with Fierce, Meghan Sandfoss, executive director for Kentucky’s Office of Broadband Development, delved into some of the challenges the state has encountered. Naturally, rural deployment is at the forefront.

The eastern part of Kentucky, which is comprised of 54 counties that are part of the Appalachian Regional Commission, has the “largest challenges in terms of developing infrastructure because of the terrain,” Sandfoss said. With regards to terrain, Sandfoss noted some providers had to get creative to deliver broadband to hard-to-reach locations across mountains and hills.

“One of our telephone co-ops…they actually had a mule that pulled fiber up the side of the mountain to get the fiber to the residents,” said Sandfoss. “Those are the kinds of obstacles that we’re looking at.”

In addition to prioritizing unserved areas – with speeds less than 25/3 Mbps – Sandfoss said the state is trying to identify “no service” locations – those with speeds below 10/1 Mbps.

“When we’re talking about deploying broadband to those rural areas, the providers are saying it’s about $70,000 per mile to deploy that,” she said. And that’s where state and federal funds come in, as “when you’re talking about one or two customers per mile, it’s really hard to make a commercial case for that kind of development.”

Because Kentucky’s broadband office is still relatively new, there’s no statewide map currently available. But that will change soon, as Sandfoss said data collection for mapping will be done in May. “That’s part of our BEAD planning process but also a legislative priority…a statutory requirement of the office,” she said.

Thus far, Kentucky has submitted over 15,000 fixed availability challenges to the FCC’s national broadband map. Some of those challenges have already been won, Sandfoss added.

“One of the things we did was figuring out locations that only had one provider that provided speeds of 25/3 or greater,” she explained. “And then looking at the technology they offered, what was the highest potential for success on challenges.”

The Office of Broadband Development is also undertaking a listening tour to determine how accessibility varies from region to region.

“There are a lot of areas, particularly in the eastern part of the state, that there’s not great cell phone coverage, once you leave the center of town you have no connectively at all,” Sandfoss pointed out.

As for providers that are making an impact in broadband accessibility, she said the state has a healthy mix of national cable companies, WISPs and particularly cooperatives, as they have a different funding model than some of the investor-owned providers.

“They are really committed to serving their local customers,” she said. “They are building gig-capable internet in areas that are really remote.”

According to the Kentucky Electric Cooperatives association, there are 26 electric co-ops in the state and they serve around 1.5 million people across 117 counties.

Fiber alternatives

Asked if her office is promoting a particular deployment method, Sandfoss said Kentucky is trying to stay technology neutral, as “we know there are some areas of the state that are just going to be difficult to serve with fiber because of the cost.”

The NTIA, which is responsible for doling out BEAD funding to states, has expressed preference for fiber projects. Still, Kentucky is looking into other options, such as fixed wireless, since deployment tends to be quicker than fiber.

“However, in our two rounds of funding that we’ve had, we have not had any applications for fixed wireless installations,” said Sandfoss. “It’s all been fiber-to-the-home or cable.”

Funding stats

Kentucky has about $320 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds allocated for broadband deployment. From that amount, $117.2 million comes from the State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (SLFRF) program.

The state obtained an additional $20 million from the SLFRF for pole replacement grants, along with $182.8 million from the Capital Projects Fund.

“Out of those funding sources, we have awarded $89.6 million to 47 broadband projects that will serve an additional 34,000 locations,” said Sandfoss. When factoring in matching funds from grant recipients, Kentucky invested over $203 million for the first round of its Better Internet Program.

Sandfoss’ office is now undergoing the challenge process for the second round of that program, as applications closed on February 6. The state received 103 applications in 77 out of 120 counties.

The NTIA has yet to announce state allocations for BEAD, but Sandfoss said the Kentucky office has seen estimates “anywhere from 700 million to $1.3 billion.”