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Mar. 23—From hosting business meetings via Zoom to students attending classes online, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed Kentucky's deep digital divide and helped shine a light on the importance of reliable high-speed internet access.
Many others in more rural areas have had a difficult time simply just connecting. So much so that back in August, Governor Andy Beshear dedicated $8 million in CARES Act funding to help improve broadband connection throughout the state.
In January, the state also launched the Kentucky Broadband Speed Test, a crowd-sourcing project that is gathering data from Kentuckians needed to expand internet access through a partnership involving The Center for Rural Development, Prichard Committee, and Kentucky Education & Workforce Development Cabinet. Beshear said the more speed tests taken, the better understanding state officials would have on the commonwealth's internet capabilities, and the better prepared they would be to repair and expand it.
"We want to get a lay of the land, so to speak," Richard Taylor, The Center's Executive Vice President, said of testing up front. "We're very county-centric, so that's the way we have divided it out to track."
An initial February 18 deadline has been extended, as officials look for at least 10 percent participation from each county for statistical accuracy. Pulaski is one of several where more information is needed. Last week, SPEDA (Somerset Pulaski Economic Development Authority) issued a plea urging all local residents to take the one-minute speed test.
As of Monday, according to Taylor, the county's participation rate was still just under four percent at 3.92.
"We are looking for 3,144 total unique locations to constitute that 10 percent," Taylor added. "There are about 31,000 households in Pulaski County. We're currently at 1,231 locations."
Taylor continued that people are encouraged to take the test from their homes — noting that it doesn't matter whether they are broadband customers or use wireless devices to create a "hot spot." Even those without any type of service should visit their local library or such location to submit their address.
"I know it doesn't make sense to say 'take the test' when you don't have internet access," Taylor said, "but there are options on the test which will give us reasons why."
Taylor further explained that of the Pulaski Countians who had indicated they don't have broadband service at home, 86.67 percent said it wasn't available; 15.5 said it was too expensive; and 2.2 percent said they had no computer.
Testing data will give officials a better idea how to disburse federal and state monies to providers seeking to expand or improve service.
"The House and Senate have passed $250 million for broadband," Taylor said. "Which is a 50 percent match, so it could turn into up to $500 million. It has yet to be determined how that will be disbursed but the people applying will have to be specific in what they want to do and how they plan to do it, as well as the timeline."
Taylor was referring to House Bill 320, which has been delivered for the governor's signature. The distribution of funds will occur during the second, third, and fourth quarters of 2021-2022 for projects that are in underserved or unserved census blocks, within areas that are not currently receiving federal broadband funds, and projects that reach customers that are the least economical to serve.
"Toward the end of the year, we want to do this again and get a benchmark for what the improvements have been," Taylor said. "It's just important to take the test, wherever you are."
Visit speedtest.ky.gov for a video tutorial, resources and to take the test.