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Rural Communities Take Broadband Into Their Own Hands


A lot of us take high-speed internet for granted, but about 40 percent of rural Americans live where there are no options for broadband. From WMMT, Benny Becker reports on one community in Appalachian Kentucky that's struggling to get its residents connected.

BENNY BECKER, BYLINE: I met Gemelia Lewis early last year near her home in Linefork, Ky. It's a little valley tucked away in the mountains of Letcher County, an Appalachian community with a strong sense of heritage.

GEMELIA LEWIS: This is the house where I grew up.

BECKER: Her grandfather built this house, and Lewis has stayed home to help take care of her parents. She has a background in accounting but has had a hard time finding steady work.

LEWIS: I was actually offered a job where I could work from home, but I couldn't take the job because there's no internet.

BECKER: From her house, Lewis had no options for broadband internet and not enough cellphone signal to get online or even make calls. The lack of connectivity has been hard on her family. Homework is almost impossible for her younger son, who's visually impaired. The school has loaned him an iPad that he can use to zoom in on the text in his assignments...

LEWIS: But he can't do that here because we don't have any internet at all. I feel like he's getting left behind because he doesn't have what he needs to get his education, and that's not fair.

BECKER: Across America, 23 million people live in rural areas where there's no broadband internet. The federal government has spent billions of dollars trying to expand access, but much of that has gone to large telecom companies. Those businesses make more money when they maximize customers, so they often target more densely populated areas. Christopher Mitchell directs the Community Broadband Networks Initiative in Minnesota. He advocates for local efforts to expand internet access, and he wants Congress to do more.

CHRISTOPHER MITCHELL: It was estimated it would cost $350 billion to connect every last home in America. If most of that came through loans, you're looking at less than a $10-billion-per-year program for something that I think would supercharge the economy for decades to come.

BECKER: Many communities say they're not willing to wait. More than 750 have already built their own broadband networks. That includes urban areas like Chattanooga, Tenn., and Concord, Mass., but also rural places like Powell, Wyo., and Bellevue, Iowa. Last year, Letcher County, Ky., decided to follow that model. Officials created a broadband board to try to bring affordable internet to isolated areas like Linefork. Harry Collins chairs the group.

HARRY COLLINS: Let's face it - that pipe dream in the sky of the new interstate ain't going to roll right up through Linefork. But this group can bring you the information highway, and that's what we're here to do.

BECKER: The board applied for a $1.5 million federal grant to install a fiber optic network, but it was denied. Now the board is trying something different - a network that's quicker and cheaper to build.

DON WHITE: Wireless broadband - so no cables, no phone lines.

BECKER: That's Don White of FiSci Technologies. Last year, White helped install wireless broadband in another part of Letcher County.

WHITE: It's a very viable approach to providing broadband into areas that are tough to get connectivity to.

BECKER: The Letcher County Broadband Board estimates it could build a wireless network this year for $700,000 if it can find the money. And that's a problem for many rural communities already struggling from a declining population and many years of job losses. For those living in Linefork, there has been some good news. A small local provider expanded its network, and for the first time, a few people like Gemelia Lewis now have a fast internet connection at home.

For NPR News, I'm Benny Becker in Whitesburg, Ky.


SIMON: And that story comes to us from the Ohio Valley Resource. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Benny Becker