The One-Traffic-Light Town with Some of the Fastest Internet in the U.S.
Connecting rural America to broadband is a popular talking point on the campaign trail. In one Kentucky community, it’s already a way of life.
By Sue Halpern
Dec 3 2019
Before Shani Hays began providing tech support for Apple from her home, in McKee, Kentucky, she worked at a prison as a corrections officer assigned to male sex offenders, making nine dollars an hour. After less than a year, she switched to working nights on an assembly line at a car-parts factory, where she felt safer. More recently, Hays, who is fifty-four, was an aide at a nursing home, putting in a full workweek in a single weekend and driving eighty-five miles to get there. Then her son-in-law, who was married to Hays’s oldest daughter, got addicted to crystal meth and became physically abusive. Hays’s daughter started using, too. The son-in-law went to jail. Their kids were placed in foster care. Then Hays’s stepmother got cancer. “There was a lot going on,” Hays told me. “I was just trying to keep it all together.” She began working from home last summer, which has allowed her to gain custody of her three grandchildren. (Her daughter has since completed treatment for her addiction.) During Hays’s half-hour lunch break, she makes supper. “I wouldn’t be able to do this without the Internet we have here,” she said.
McKee, an Appalachian town of about twelve hundred tucked into the Pigeon Roost Creek valley, is the seat of Jackson County, one of the poorest counties in the country. There’s a sit-down restaurant, Opal’s, that serves the weekday breakfast-and-lunch crowd, one traffic light, a library, a few health clinics, eight churches, a Dairy Queen, a pair of dollar stores, and some of the fastest Internet in the United States. Subscribers to Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative (P.R.T.C.), which covers all of Jackson County and the adjacent Owsley County, can get speeds of up to one gigabit per second, and the coöperative is planning to upgrade the system to ten gigabits. (By contrast, where I live, in the mountains above Lake Champlain, we are lucky to get three megabytes.) For nearly fifteen million Americans living in sparsely populated communities, there is no broadband Internet service at all. “The cost of infrastructure simply doesn’t change,” Shirley Bloomfield, the C.E.O. of the Rural Broadband Association, told me. “It’s no different in a rural area than in Washington, D.C. But we’ve got thousands of people in a square mile to spread the cost among. You just don’t in rural areas.”
Keith Gabbard, the C.E.O. of P.R.T.C., had the audacious idea of wiring every home and business in Jackson and Owsley Counties with high-speed fibre-optic cable. Gabbard, who is in his sixties, is deceptively easygoing, with a honeyed drawl and a geographically misplaced affection for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He grew up in McKee and attended Eastern Kentucky University, thirty-five miles down Route 421; he lives with his wife, a retired social worker, in a house next door to the one in which he grew up. “I’ve spent my whole life here,” he said. “I’m used to people leaving for college and never coming back. The ones who didn’t go to college stayed. But the best and the brightest have often left because they felt like they didn’t have a choice.”
When Gabbard returned to his home town after college, in 1976, he took an entry-level job at the telephone coöperative. “I had this degree in business management that I thought was really cool, but I got a job answering the phones,” he said. “At the time, we were all on party lines, and everybody was calling and complaining about somebody on their line and they couldn’t get the phone. I was taking those complaints. And I remember thinking that, once we got everyone their own lines, we won’t have any more problems. I didn’t have a clue what was coming.”
At the time, telephone service itself was relatively new in Gabbard’s corner of eastern Kentucky. The area was served by an electric co-op, created in the nineteen-thirties to take advantage of the Rural Electrification Act, New Deal legislation that brought electricity to the most isolated parts of the country. But no commercial telephone company wanted to spend the money to plant the poles and string the wires to connect Jackson and Owsley Counties to the rest of the world. When the R.E.A. was amended, in 1949, to enable co-ops to take advantage of low-interest loans to build and operate telephone services, a group of local businesspeople went door to door assessing the desire and asking residents to demonstrate their commitment by paying a modest membership fee. With a loan from the federal government, they built a telephone company, as Gabbard describes it, “from scratch.” In 1953, Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative began providing party lines to five hundred and seventy-five subscribers. There are now around seven thousand active members.
After a few years fielding customer complaints at P.R.T.C., Gabbard became a dispatcher, sending out repair crews and scheduling installations. He dabbled a bit in engineering, spent a few years assisting the C.E.O., and, in 1996, replaced him. As chief executive, Gabbard moved the company into the cable-television business, added dial-up Internet, and partnered with four regional telecommunications companies to create Appalachian Wireless, a cell service that now covers twenty-seven Kentucky counties. These upgrades, however, did little to improve the local economy. In 2005, a fire at a manufacturing plant in McKee put seven hundred people out of work overnight. “Our economy fell off a cliff that day,” Jackson County’s chief elected officer, Shane Gabbard, who is no relation to Keith Gabbard, told me when we met in his office in the county courthouse, a redoubt of taxidermy and crucifixes. “The car lot next door to the factory went out of business. The gas station went out. Every business in town was affected.”
By 2009, unemployment in Jackson County was more than sixteen per cent. (In Owsley County, which sits at the edge of coal country, it was about twelve per cent.) Few places in the country were as down-and-out—and even fewer had fibre-optic service to the home. But, as Gabbard and his crew saw it, when it came time to upgrade infrastructure in parts of both counties, it made no sense to replace old copper wiring with new copper wires, which don’t have the capacity for broadband. “It’s no more difficult to build fibre than it is copper,” he said. “It was just a matter of money and time.” With twenty million dollars borrowed from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and twenty-five million dollars in Obama-era stimulus—some of it a grant and some of it a loan—P.R.T.C. pulled a thousand miles of cable, to all seven thousand structures in the county. In the most rugged terrain around McKee, the crews relied on a mule named Old Bub to haul the cable two or three miles a day. “We’ve got mountains and rocks and not the greatest roads, and there were places we couldn’t get a vehicle to,” Gabbard told me. “Farmers here have been using mules for centuries. It just made sense that, if a place was hard to get to, you went with the mules.” Old Bub, he said, was able to do the work of eight to ten men.
The effort took six years, at a cost of fifty thousand dollars per mile. “Someone has to build to the last mile,” he said. “The big telecom companies aren’t going to do it, because it’s not economical and they have shareholders to answer to. We’re a co-op. We’re owned by our members. We answer to each other.” The grants they got, he said, were a matter of good timing and good luck. P.R.T.C. failed the first time it applied for stimulus money but got it on the second round, and with better terms than it had asked for originally. “One of the things we pitched was how impoverished our region was, how high our unemployment was, and how much this would help us,” Gabbard said. Even still, P.R.T.C. was initially five million dollars short of what it cost to wire the last, most remote residences with fibre-optic broadband; profits from Appalachian Wireless supplied the remaining capital that it needed to finish the job. “Our board and staff, we really wanted to do it all,” Gabbard said. “We wanted everyone to have the same thing.”
Once Jackson and Owsley Counties were wired, Gabbard was approached by the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program (EKCEP), to see if they could use P.R.T.C.’s broadband to bring Internet-based jobs to the region. In 2015, Teleworks U.S.A., a job-training nonprofit, opened a branch in Jackson County. It is a collaboration between EKCEP, the phone coöperative, and a number of other civic groups. P.R.T.C. supplies the hub with Internet connectivity and gives three months of free service to anyone who completes a workshop there. In nearly five years, it has created more than six hundred work-at-home jobs in the county. Participants learn enough basic computer skills to get placed at companies such as Hilton Hotels, Cabela’s, U-Haul, Harry & David, and Apple.