The U.S. Senate version of the farm bill currently under debate includes the “Connect the Nation Act.” It’s modeled from a program that originated in Kentucky. But there are questions as to whether Kentucky’s program is the ideal model.
The Senate’s Connect the Nation Act would give up to 40 million dollars a year in matching funds for state or regional public-private partnerships dedicated to bringing broadband internet access to rural areas.The act is based on the success of ConnectKentucky, which has now become Connected Nation, headquartered in Washington DC.”We’ve had a 100% increase in the number of homes using broadband,” says Connected Nation CEO Brian Mefford. “That growth rate has led the country.”But others who work in the broadband field say that’s not accurate.”Kentucky is not one of the fastest growing states in the country,” says Bruce Leichtman of the Leichtman Research Group, an independent agency that studies broadband proliferation.He says ConnectKentucky’s claim is based on an oversight. One year, the FCC did not include Kentucky’s biggest internet service provider in a connectivity survey. The next year, it did. When you compare the two studies, it looks like Kentucky is one of the fastest growing state in the country, but according to Leichtman, it’s among the last. Kentucky ranks 46th in broadband connectivity.Mefford says his group has done more than increase connectivity. He says they’re closing in on complete statewide broadband access. But Norman Schippert, who runs Bluegrass Net, an independent ISP in Louisville, says that’s like taking credit for the tide coming in.”The original mission of Connect Kentucky was to proliferate broadband in the state of Kentucky and in my opinion that’s done,” he says.
Schippert and Leichtman say broadband proliferation was inevitable. Leichtman points out that from 2004 to 2007, the number of connected addresses in Kentucky went up 16 percent. That seems significant, but nationwide connectivity rose 18 percent and that’s without the help of a public-private partnership like Connect Kentucky, which has received millions of dollars in state grants over the years.
ConnectKentucky has a map of broadband availability on their website.
“I’m not sure they’re as accurate as they say they are,” says OV Sparks, the general manager of KV Net, a small ISP in Hardin County in reference to the map. “Some of those places might have one person in there who can get it. It’s like a census area. They say, ‘This guy can get it.’ So they color the whole area in and that’s not true. Some of that area can’t get it.”
Now Connect Kentucky is seeking money to map other states. They’re also working to promote broadband use in rural areas through what they call ‘eCommunity Leadership Teams.’ Sparks is on the Hardin County team, and he thinks it’s a good idea, but in the last two years, he says all they’ve done is produce a document outlining their goals.
“It’s a nice little brochure piece,” says Sparks. “I haven’t seen anything come out of it yet.”
Sparks says ConnectKentucky has increased awareness of new technology, and CEO Brian Mefford points out a positive result of the group’s growth.
“Two years previous to this initiative, Kentucky was bleeding IT jobs at a rate of about 6.4% per year. And just in the past two years, we’ve seen that turn around and we’ve seen a 3.1% increase,” says Mefford.
As Connect Kentucky and its parent Connected Nation expand, they stand to receive more state and federal grants through the Senate version of the farm bill, based on apparent success in Kentucky. But researcher Bruce Leichtman says he wouldn’t call it a success story.