An old saying had it that a child growing up in the hills of East Kentucky in the middle part of the past century was required to master “the 3 R’s: readin’, ritin’, and Route 23.” (If you grew up nearer London or Somerset, simply substitute Route 25, or 27.) No matter where you grew up in East Kentucky, Route 23, or 25, or 27 were your highways of opportunity leading to a better life. Fast forward to modern times and high speed internet- “The I-Way”, as Congressman Rogers calls it- holds the same importance, with one critical distinction: those highways required people to leave to work. Today’s internet can bring jobs to us.
One of the items that came out of the recent SOAR (Shaping Our Appalachian Region) summit was an announcement that Governor Beshear and Congressman Rogers foresee the creation of a major, broadband-highway stretched across the region. Planning for this project has already begun at the Center for Rural Development. This common practice, known in popular terms as “Dark Fiber”, involves laying the pipeline through which future high speed internet will run. (Once the fiber goes live, it will no longer be “dark.”)
Laying “Dark Fiber” involves a public-private partnership that first carries out the difficult, civil engineering work, such as planning, purchasing right of ways, and actually laying the dormant pipelines, before then finding private companies that will run and operate the actual internet lines. The end result is extremely high speed internet available to educational institutions, hospitals, and businesses.
The importance of increasingly faster internet available in the mountains cannot be overstated. It will be our economic-lifeline just as surely as our highways were in the 20th century. Ever more data is being converted into digital form: pictures, records, x-ray images, schematics, blueprints, designs, movies, music, etc. Moving this data requires increasingly faster and bigger pipelines. Companies and institutions simply cannot do business in the 21st century without this broadband capacity. This means that communities that can’t provide the type of internet services necessary for companies and institutions to do business will eventually lose this business. Conversely, communities that do provide competitive, high-speed internet will be attractive to entrepreneurs, medical facilities, and institutions of higher education.
Getting and getting ready for Dark Fiber will require hard work. To get it will require the appropriate funding. Dark Fiber will not be cheap; it will require public and private funding in an age when public funding is increasingly scarce. Getting ready for it is just as important. Gone are the days of “build it and they will come.” The big muscle will be focused on building it; those of us in the region must focus on being ready when it’s built. This will require cultivating public and private innovation and entrepreneurship. The first step in this process will be in educating ourselves about the implications of this new infrastructure. I believe our leaders will accomplish their goal of building this new I-way. Will we be ready?
Johnathan Gay is the Director of the Kentucky Innovation Network office at Morehead State University. The opinions here are his own.