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Internet speed lagging behind in Kentucky

BY GENEVIEVE POSTLETHWAIT gpostlethwait@paducahsun.com

Kentucky's Internet connection speeds rank among the lowest in the nation, according to a recent report from cloud services provider Akamai Technologies.

According to the report, Kentucky ties with Montana and Arkansas for the second-lowest Internet connection speeds, averaging 7.3 megabits per second statewide. Alaska ranked last at 7 megabits per second.

Kentucky's low Internet speeds have raised concern for some time. Earlier this year, Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers announced plans for a "Next Generation Kentucky Information Highway," a network-based, fiber optical backbone to improve the quality and reliability of broadband Internet services throughout the state.

For western Kentucky, however, it isn't merely an issue of low speed. It's often also an issue of high cost.

"The biggest issue is cost and affordability," said John Vos, professor of computer information technology at West Kentucky Community & Technical College. Although improvements in Internet speeds would enhance students' engagement with online courses and content, the challenges students and educators face go deeper than slow connections.

"The speed might be there, but some students can only afford the slower speeds," Vos said. "Or a student may be in a rural area of Kentucky where you can't get anything above a very low DSL speed. For a lot of things we do online, it's insufficient."

Tim Hart, technology support coordinator for McCracken County Schools, said the county's schools, like most, have incredibly fast, reliable Internet access on campus, even in the smaller schools. According to Hart, this is thanks to an initiative by the Kentucky Board of Education to provide a reliable, high-speed network for schools.

"Where it really has an effect is when kids go home," Hart said.

According to the Commonwealth Office of Broadband Outreach and Development (Broadband KY), about 1.5 percent of the state's urban population doesn't have Internet access, whereas 23 percent of the rural population lacks it. U.S. Census Bureau data reveals that 72.1 percent of all Kentucky residents live in a household where Internet is available, which ranks the state 39th in the nation.

"The top two reasons Kentuckians told us they didn't have broadband at home was that it was one, too expensive, or two, they didn't think it was worth it," Broadband KY Executive Director Brian Kiser said. "They didn't value broadband."

Part of Broadband KY's initiative, Kiser said, is to educate the public on the benefits of using broadband Internet services, as well to provide access opportunities for those in need. In western Kentucky they have partnered with Murray State University to open two West Kentucky Broadband eLearning Centers - one at the Fulton County Public Library and another at the National Guard Armory in Hickman County. They have also worked with Community Action Kentucky, a low-income assistance agency, to provide public Internet access in its Fulton, Carlisle, Ballard, McCracken, Graves, Marshall and Calloway County offices. 

As for the effect of Kentucky's Internet speeds on attracting industry, it seems minimal at the local level.

"It's never really come up," said Chad Chancellor, president of Paducah Economic Development. "All of our business sites have high speed Internet access. I can't even imagine promoting a site without it."

When it comes down to what's more important for Kentucky - increasing Internet connection speeds, or accessibility and affordability - Kiser said it's hard to rank one over the other.

"It's kind of a chicken or the egg choice," he said. "What comes first? Faster speeds are very, very important, but some of our citizens still just need access. Speed is irrelevant to them at this point. They both need to happen."

Contact Genevieve Postlethwait, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8651 or at gpostlethwait@paducahsun.com.

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