Legislators, civil advocates, and local government continue to unify and work toward minimizing the digital divide that leaves many communities underserved and unserved.

Before the close of the 2021 Kentucky legislative session, various broadband infrastructure bills were passed.

“We’re taking the FCC map, we’re taking the speed test map, and we’re trying to create the best map that we then put out for comment, including to county judges and mayors about the unserved and underserved areas,” said Gov. Andy Beshear.

As a result, broadband programs and projects are expected to directly impact residents; they include the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program and House Bill 320.

The Emergency Broadband Benefit Program is a Federal Communications Commission program that gives discounts for internet consumers, according to the FCC.

The program was established in December 2020, within the Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund, as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which appropriated $3.2 billion to the United States Treasury.

A $50 monthly internet service discount is available, as well as a $100 computer discount. People living on Tribal lands are eligible for a $75 internet service discount.

HB 320 appropriates $250 million to the broadband deployment fund for the fiscal year 2021-2022, whereby no more than $50 million shall be awarded before April 1, 2022, according to the bill.

According to Chapter 224A Kentucky Infrastructure Authority, “the broadband deployment fund shall be established in the State Treasury and shall be administered by the authority [Kentucky Infrastructure Authority]. The fund shall be a dedicated fund, and all moneys in the fund shall be allocated and dedicated solely to providing grant funds to governmental agencies and private sector entities to construct infrastructure for the deployment of broadband service to households and businesses in underserved or unserved areas of the Commonwealth through an account designated as the broadband deployment fund.”

The newly appropriated funds are to be awarded for projects that serve unserved and underserved areas where financial resources are inadequate or unavailable.

These broadband projects are to reach customers “that are the least economical to serve,” as stated in HB 320.

Carried out projects will increase broadband service speeds, raising them from—at lowest—10 megabits per second downstream and 1 megabit per second upstream.

Project cost must be matched not less than 50%, according to the bill.

Lake Barkley Partnership Executive Director Amanda Davenport works with employers and local government to bridge gaps in economic and community development.

“I suspect, if a community has a high response and they apply for the grant through 320, I suspect the response rate will be a weighted factor,” Davenport said.

Davenport recalled the KySpeedTest, which invited the 120 counties in Kentucky to participate in internet access mapping. Caldwell County led the state in this initiative—between 19% and 20% of residents participated.

“Part of the reason there is an inequity is a lack of population density and not enough profit to be made,” Davenport said. “I think that’s part of why some of the [rural] areas haven’t seen as much fiber optic buildout.”

HB 320 allows for distribution cooperatives to facilitate the implementation of the provision of broadband services.

Under HB 320, electric utility providers will now have the opportunity to act as broadband service provider affiliates, wherein pole attachment agreement costs are voided, therefore using electric utility poles as a site for fiber technology.

In the coming weeks, local government and electric utility providers will meet to discuss how to use the allocated funds.