In Appalachia, a public broadband project hits snags

By Adam Beam

The Associated Press

FRANKFORT, Ky. — Kentucky’s plan to build one of the country’s largest publicly owned broadband networks was touted as a cornerstone of the effort to save the Appalachian economy by bringing high-speed internet to some of the poorest counties in America.

It was supposed to take a year to finish, but three years later only a fraction of the 3,000 mile network of fiber optic cables known as Kentucky Wired has been built. Construction has been plagued by delays, forcing the state to pay $7 million in penalties to its private-sector partners with the potential of “tens of millions” more. State officials had been counting on public schools and libraries to help pay some of the bills but that plan has fallen through, and project officials plan to ask state lawmakers for millions of dollars in taxpayer money to make up the difference.

Now, some of the state’s most influential lawmakers want to pull the plug, and have asked project leaders how much that would cost.

“This is the 21st century version of the big dig in Boston,” said Chris McDaniel, chairman of the state Senate’s budget-writing committee, referring to a project that took decades to complete and cost twice as much as planned.

Launched with considerable fanfare in August 2015, Kentucky Wired was designed to touch all of Kentucky’s 120 counties to ensure even the most remote hollers of the Appalachian mountains would have access to high-speed internet — widely viewed as crucial to jumpstarting economic development.

The undertaking requires a 3,000-mile network of fiber optic cables, 85 percent of them strung from existing telephone poles while the rest run underground.

It was supposed to have been completed by the fall of 2016. Instead, crews have installed only 68 miles of tubing for the cables, nearly 13 miles of glass fiber and 6 miles of aerial fiber cables.

“Kentucky Wired is pioneering the use of the public-private partnership model in a new sector, and therefore the model is subject to temporary setbacks,” said Nicholas Hann, senior managing director for Macquarie Capital, the Australian venture capital firm that has a contract to build and operate the network. “We have the utmost confidence that we can work through these challenges.”

Part of the problem is getting permission to hang cables onto existing telephone poles. In many cases, project leaders have to negotiate with private property owners who are often wary of granting an easement to the government. And they have to woo officials with local governments, some of whom already own and operate their own broadband networks.