Governor Beshear continues to tell us to stay “Safe at Home”, and he’s right. For many of us that means a lot more time on the internet to work remotely, keep our kids up to date on school assignments, access telemedicine, tune into public meetings, shop for essentials, and stream something to give our minds a break from the crisis.
For too many people in Eastern Kentucky, though, that’s not an option. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed even more starkly how deep and wide the digital divide truly is. We know there are huge gaps in the physical infrastructure needed to get access to the last mile. But even where the infrastructure exists, far too many cannot afford to access it.
While we must continue to build new infrastructure, that can’t be done fast enough right now to respond to this emergency. There is one thing, though, that could be done right now to help level the playing field for more people in rural Kentucky: Flip the switch. Internet service providers should immediately make basic internet access available, for free, to everyone in the state for the duration of the state of emergency.
Those who can afford it can pay for faster service and more bandwidth, as we already do. But those struggling to survive this crisis need the essential lifeline of internet service. Ideally, the service providers would recognize this as a moment of opportunity, a chance to show some heart and do the right thing. They might even end up with more customers in the long run. But if they won’t do this on their own, then government subsidies and mandates should be brought into play as is being done in other critical sectors of our economy.
The Community Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky (CEDIK) recently explored the digital divide in each of Kentucky’s 120 counties. They calculated a digital divide index score between 0 and 100, with higher scores indicating a higher divide. They included rates of people living in poverty in the study, too, and there is correlation between highest digital divide and highest rates of people living in poverty.
For example, the percentage of people living below the poverty line in Harlan County is 35.6 percent. The digital divide score there is nearly 80. In Perry County, where CEDIK tallied the lowest digital access score of the five top coal-producing counties in Eastern Kentucky at almost 57, the percentage living below the poverty line is 26.2.
This calls us to think differently about how to ensure every home has access to the critical utility of internet in a region where disposable income is slim to non-existent. The solutions won’t be as simple as extending high-speed fiber lines out from county seats and offering a plug in to every home, even though that is also necessary and important and should be done.
During this crisis, thinking differently could look like internet service providers flipping the switch, and giving free basic internet to all homes that can access it. It could also look like rural electric cooperatives and local municipalities taking on internet as one of the services they provide in addition to electricity, and extending fiber lines throughout their service areas.
A good model for how this is done is the People’s Rural Telephone Cooperative in Jackson County, which extended high-speed fiber internet to all their customers years ago. Mountain Telephone, based in West Liberty, has also upgraded their systems and offers high-speed internet to their clients in 10 counties.
Even in the best of times, Eastern Kentucky lagged behind in broadband connectivity. But now, in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, unjust systems that have disproportionately harmed people who are poor and working class, and people of color the most, are being exposed in stark relief. We can no longer ignore arbitrarily enforced inequities that prevent our region from moving forward into the brighter future it deserves and is owed.
Let this crisis teach us a lesson we never forget: That when one of us is intentionally left behind, we all suffer as a result. We must act now to make sure Eastern Kentucky no longer lags behind, so that this region can flourish well into the future. One way among many to make it happen, is to let everyone have access to internet, despite where they live or how much money they make.
Peter Hille is the president of the Mountain Association with offices in Berea, Hazard and Paintsville.