Eastern Kentucky is filled with potential.
From our hardworking, dedicated people, to the natural beauty of our home, our region has so much to offer.
As the remote work economy continues to deliver new career opportunities, we need to make every effort to help Eastern Kentuckians access them. Thousands of high-paying, remote jobs are available today to qualified candidates with reliable internet connections at home.
But not all our residents have what they need to participate in the remote work economy.
Kentucky comes in 45th nationwide in at-home access to high-speed internet. And while the KentuckyWired middle-mile network offers significant progress towards resolving this issue, last-mile broadband funding is the final step to bridge these gaps in coverage.
Eastern Kentucky communities who need last-mile broadband most need to put their combined ingenuity to good use. Every person — not just local leaders — has a role to play in making rural broadband a reality.
And when they do the prep work before applying for grants and broadband expansion programs, these communities will be first in line to match their priority projects with funding opportunities.
But before you send in your applications, you have to be sure your community is ready to make use of these potential funds.
Without this preparation, no amount of funding will be able to make an impact.
Follow these 6 steps to ensure your community is prepared to implement a broadband installation plan that will make a difference.
Step 1: Form a Fiber Board
Your first step is to gather your resources. To set yourself up for success, the greatest advantage you can count on are the people who’ll support your broadband projects from start to finish.
You can do this by partnering with the community leaders most invested in transforming your county’s economic opportunities through expanded broadband access.
By forming a fiber board for your county, you can gain the manpower and support you need to plan for and implement broadband initiatives.
Your fiber board should be made up of members from local public entities and private businesses. They’ll facilitate information sharing, resources, and partnerships on behalf of your broadband initiatives.
The fiber board represents your community’s digital champions.
They translate their excitement and vision for connectivity into a practical plan that gets other locals excited, as well. Your fiber board should also help to make your county an ideal partner for private industry investment in broadband infrastructure.
A successful example that has created meaningful change for their community is the Leslie County Fiber Board. This group partnered with SOAR to purchase speed test boxes and support the expansion of broadband expansion efforts.
Their ambitious goals align towards one shared purpose: Stop the brain drain by bringing economic opportunities to Leslie County. This guiding light keeps them on track, even when faced with the challenges of implementation.
Step 2: Complete a feasibility study
The next step is to understand the scope of broadband needs in your county, and the specific actions you’ll need to take to fulfill them. One of the earliest steps your board should take will be to initiate a formal mapping and feasibility project.
Performing a feasibility study will demonstrate to funders you’ve done your due diligence. The more hard data you can provide, the better your chances will be to qualify for funding. If you can provide data on a household level — which most funders don’t have access to — you’ll increase your chances significantly.
A feasibility study will reveal important insights to guide your initiative.
It should include:
- a needs assessment
- an audit of your existing broadband network
- possible designs
- provider and partnership options
- potential roadblocks
- projected costs for implementation
You’ll also need an updated broadband map of your county. This should show you the places that have strong connections to broadband, the underserved areas, and the locations completely without access.
One of the best resources for Eastern Kentucky counties to get funding for broadband projects is the Center for Rural Development’s Technology Assistance Program (TAP). These funds are specifically set aside to help communities pay for asset mapping and feasibility studies.
Step 3: Prioritize Projects
Once your fiber board receives the results of the mapping and feasibility project, you’ll need to determine where you’ll allocate funding if you receive it. You can do this by examining your map and developing a list of priorities.
The areas within your county that need broadband connections the most should be at the top of that list.
Keep the entire project scope top-of-mind.
You should be focusing on making a difference for as many residents as possible. Don’t just focus on properly wiring your county seat or biggest city while leaving the rest of your county behind. If you only focus on the easiest projects first, you’ll end up leaving the most difficult parts for last. The toughest, most challenging projects should be prioritized. Othersie, they’ll naturally fall to the wayside.
Here are a few prioritization categories you should consider:
- Number of potential households to be served
- Areas with the worst existing coverage
- School-adjacent zones
- Neighborhoods with important community institutions
- High unemployment zones
Your board should represent a variety of perspectives and needs — and they’ll help advise on how to prioritize projects to maximize funding and serve the community the best you can. When a fiber board represents the right cross-section from a community, every member can work together to set these priorities for the community and county.
Step 4: Quantify Costs
Now that you’ve identified the highest-need projects for your broadband initiative, the next step is to establish the expected costs for implementing them.
To do this, you’ll need to review the results of your mapping and feasibility project and develop a conservative range of fees to complete installation. This is important because you can’t apply for funding without first knowing how much money your county needs for broadband implementation.
Don’t be shy about asking for what you need.
According to the Broadband USA Federal Funding Guide, there are millions of dollars of grants and other funding sources available today to those who apply for them. A well-thought-out budget with data to back it up will position you well to secure the funds you need when it comes time to apply.
Step 5: Explore Partnerships
As part of your applications, your county will need to illustrate you have partnerships with other public entities and private industries. By showing your efforts rely on supportive partnerships, grantors and agencies will perceive you as more likely to succeed through implementation.
That’s because successful public-private partnerships (PPPs) are key to broadband projects.
There are a few models to consider when evaluating the right PPP structure for your county:
- Shared Ownership, Private Operation: Jointly funded network deployment with operations led by the private entity
- Public Ownership, Private Operation: Publicly funded and deployed network with a private contract for service and maintenance.
- Public Support for Privately Owned and Operated Network: Publicly funded extensions of an existing, privately-owned network.
The approach you select depends on the needs of your projects, the services your private partners provide, and the funds you anticipate to be awarded. PPPs come down to how risks, rewards, and responsibilities are allocated. The key is finding an arrangement that works well for all partners.
In the end, you should be evaluating your partnerships through the lens of your community:
- Are our partners committed to fulfilling our mission?
- Will these partners serve our county with integrity?
- How can we ensure our partners will deliver tangible results for our broadband initiative?
You must also understand partnerships work both ways. You’ll have to be attractive to potential partners, too.
One way local governments can ensure they’re at the top of a partner’s list is making sure the work is done up front to provide easy access to assets. This includes giving them access to right-of-ways, easements, and public buildings or facilities.
Step 6: Apply for Broadband Funding
After completing these first five steps, you’re now ready to apply for broadband funding opportunities.
Note that each department and grant program is different, so while you can find some efficiencies across your different applications, each one will have to be unique.
You don’t have to go it alone.
SOAR provides dedicated resources for Eastern Kentucky counties planning to expand broadband access.
There are three broadband and last-mile grants you can apply for:
- FCC Affordable Connectivity Program
- FCC Lifeline Program for Low-Income Customers
- USDA ReConnect Loan and Grant Program
Also keep an eye out for $200 million in additional Kentucky state funds due to become available in early 2022. And funds from the 2021 federal infrastructure bill will also be up for grabs soon.
Conclusion: Bring Remote Work Opportunities to Your Community with Broadband
There are success stories right here in Eastern Kentucky and the broader Appalachian region that prove just how valuable broadband investment can be.
Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative transformed $45 million in grants and loans into high-speed internet connectivity to all seven thousand homes and businesses in Jackson and Owsley Counties.
And we celebrated a $50,000 ARC POWER Planning grant in November 2021 to assist Cumberland Valley Electric with high-speed internet expansion efforts.
What our counties need most is reliable broadband access.
It will allow residents to tap into the fast-growing remote work economy and help our communities flourish right here at home.
To learn more about how to implement these steps, as well as how your county can benefit from comprehensive broadband access, download the Remote Work Playbook.
This resource provides detailed tips on how to prepare for the future of work and make a difference in the lives of your community members.