Transition in Action, Broadband: Mimi Pickering

Who are you, and what’s your role at your organization?

I am Mimi Pickering and I am a documentary filmmaker and director of Appalshop’s Community Media Initiative. For a number of years I have been collaborating with staff at WMMT, Appalshop’s radio station, to produce Making Connections News, a storybank focusing on opportunities and challenges for diversifying Appalachia’s economy and renewing our communities. After WMMT broadcast, the audio and video reports are shared on social media and available online at www.makingconnectionsnews.org.

How are you involved in broadband expansion in the region?

Making Connections News regularly produces radio and video stories highlighting ways in which increased access to broadband is a critical part of the various economic development strategies proposed for the region. When we first began this project in 2010, the importance of broadband was not always understood by the public or policy makers who often saw it as a luxury rather than a necessity. We have used our stories to demonstrate business, entrepreneurial, and educational uses of high-speed Internet in the region in order to build support for infrastructure development and state and federal policies supporting universal service, especially to rural areas like ours.  For example, we created a video about an entrepreneurial young couple who built a business using the Internet to sell a chicken watering device they had invented. They are able to live and work from a farm in a very rural county because the rural telephone cooperative had invested in fiber optic Internet reaching throughout the county, including to their property. Their business activity has helped support the local hardware store and post office in a town of 300. (Using Ingenuity and Internet to Stay on the Farm – video https://vimeo.com/34312825)

More recently we have reported on the up-and-down progress and uncertainty surrounding Kentucky Wired, the public/private partnership that was created to build a statewide fiber optic system with the potential to make eastern Kentucky competitive with more urban parts of the country.

Why is broadband important and how do you think it impacts community development?

Broadband is now an essential service in the U.S., and necessary for basic communications. Today we need Internet connectivity to look for work, apply for jobs, and communicate with employers and employees. Students need access to complete homework assignments and take college courses. Internet service is increasingly necessary to access health care information and social services, and to engage in civic life. Broadband availability is now a criteria families and retirees consider before moving to a new community. Access to broadband is high on the list of infrastructure needs that any business looking to locate or expand in an area requires. Studies indicate that local economies will not grow if access to high speed Internet is not available.

Once the people in our region can get affordable broadband at work and at home the potential for community and economic development is great. The geographic isolation and rugged mountain terrain in central Appalachia has been a barrier to locating manufacturing plants, factories and other large facilities. The Internet however gives us access to markets and employment opportunities around the world to sell products, professional services, and creative works. Teleworks USA based at the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program is already connecting individuals who want to work from home with distant employers seeking teleworkers. With continued support for education and training in digital arts, computer science, and entrepreneurial business skills, there is no reason why we can’t develop a high-paying “Silicon Hollow” technology sector in the region.

In a response to the need to develop the tools that will enable residents to take full advantage of broadband, Appalshop is creating the Mines to Minds High-Tech Workforce Development program – an accelerated certification program that provides training in coding, programming, software and database development. We’ve partnered with local employers to identify their technology needs to create a pathway for students to find gainful employment post graduation.

Does your community have broadband access?

In our region and much of rural America consumers have few choices for broadband providers. The large telecommunications corporations have been slow to invest or upgrade service in rural communities where their profits are lower than in metropolitan areas.

“Broadband” is defined by the Federal Communications Commission as Internet service delivered at a speed of at least 25Mbps download. According to Broadbandnow.com, 0% of Letcher County has access to Internet at a speed that high. In fact, the service provider in the lower end of the county is only providing dial-up, which is almost unusable. Cell phone service throughout the county is also spotty so that is not a good alternative. What’s true in our county is similar, or worse, in surrounding areas. In fact Kentucky ranks 42nd in connectivity and 34% of all rural Kentuckians can’t access broadband service.

As access to high speed Internet grew more essential to our work as media producers and to the livelihood of our community, we joined with others in the Rural Broadband Policy Group of the National Rural Assembly and the Media Action Grassroots Network to advocate on the state and national level for policies that would make broadband a “universal service” with the same common carrier provisions that have enabled over 95% of American households to receive and afford phone service.

In 2015, after receiving millions of comments in support, the Federal Communications Commission voted to reclassify broadband under Title II of the Communications Act as an essential telecommunications service. In addition to supporting the “Net Neutrality” principles of an open Internet platform where users and content can’t be blocked or discriminated against, the FCC now has more ability and responsibility to ensure that rural residents are not left behind. We are hopeful with the new administration that the FCC and other federal agencies will continue to use their resources to stimulate and support broadband buildout in our rural region.

There are bright spots in the broadband landscape in eastern Kentucky. Several of the rural telephone cooperatives, which are non-profit and member owned, have tapped into available loans and grants to build some of the fastest networks in the country. In February 2016 Congressman Hal Rogers invited FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to McKee to witness first hand the impact of the Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative, PRTC, which has built a fiber-optic network capable of delivering 1gigabit speeds to every home and business in rural Jackson and Owsley Counties.  At that meeting, EXCEP Executive Director Jeff Whitehead reported that 150 people had found work in Jackson County because of the efforts to utilize high speed internet service and, of the 23 counties served by EXCEP, Jackson County was the only one to have more people working in early 2016 than a year before.

Pickering provided some additional resources about broadband: