Kentucky Wired’s troubled five-year history and its heightening of partisan divides in Frankfort was all but forgotten Wednesday when it brought its high-speed fiber optic cable to the Warren County Courthouse.
State and local officials from both sides of the political aisle welcomed workers from Morehead’s G&W Construction Co., the contractor hired by Kentucky Wired to run the cable to the courthouse as part of a project to connect nearly 1,000 government offices and institutions across Kentucky to the state-run network.
“There are great advantages to getting this cable to the courthouse,” said Warren County Judge-Executive Mike Buchanon, a Republican. “It should increase our capacity and speed greatly. Having this connection will help all our offices.”
He’ll get no argument from state Rep. Patti Minter of Bowling Green, a Democrat.
“I think broadband internet is a basic right,” Minter said, “and I think the state needs to work on it.”
Kentucky Wired Communications Director Randy Lutke said the courthouse is one of about 20 Warren County sites that are being wired with the 288-strand fiber optic cable and will eventually be connected to the Kentucky Wired Network by the Commonwealth Office of Technology.
Lutke said sites such as the Warren County Justice Center, the Warren County Public Library, Kentucky State Police Post 3 and the new Kentucky Transportation Cabinet Real ID office will soon have internet access that is “at least five times faster” than current access.
Lutke said the Kentucky Communications Network Authority, which oversees Kentucky Wired, has the ability to provide internet connections that exceed the one-gigabit-per-second speed that is touted as the gold standard by internet service providers.
“Our capacity is bigger than a gigabit,” Lutke said, “but how much goes to your house is up to the internet service provider.”
Despite such capabilities, Kentucky Wired has been beset by problems and even calls for its disbanding almost from its creation. Originally sold as a program that would cost $50 million, with a sizable chunk of that covered by a federal grant, Kentucky Wired now has a price tag in excess of $1 billion.
“It turned out to be a debacle,” said state Rep. Steve Sheldon, a Republican from Bowling Green. “They had trouble getting partners and access to utility poles. It’s still a sore spot around Frankfort.”
Despite that criticism, Sheldon said Wednesday’s wiring was a positive step.
“I’m very grateful that the courthouse has access to this cable,” he said, “and I’m glad that internet service providers will have the opportunity to connect to the Kentucky Wired network.”
Lutke admitted Kentucky Wired has been over budget and behind schedule, but he insists that it’s an investment that is just beginning to pay off.
“The whole project of fiber construction is about 95 percent complete,” he said. “Kentucky Wired is the middle mile in providing internet service.
“We’re like an interstate highway but not like the private road that comes to your house. It’s up to private internet service providers to bring it to homes. Along our 3,000-mile path, private companies can connect to us and extend their service to underserved areas,” he said.
That defines the true value of Kentucky Wired, Minter said.
“As we’re dealing with this unprecedented pandemic, it shows us clearly why access to high-speed internet is important,” she said. “It’s a human right. You can’t be part of the workforce without it. We can’t leave our children behind because they don’t have access. We must provide this to everybody.”
Buchanon is already seeing evidence of how the Kentucky Wired “backbone” is helping extend broadband internet to rural areas.
He cited the example of a partnership between Warren Rural Electric Cooperative Corp. and the North Central Telephone Cooperative that is bringing high-speed internet to Boyce and Alvaton.
“The WRECC board has really focused on this (internet service) and the partnership with NCTC,” Buchanon said. “I believe they’re going to expand it throughout the county, and they tell me Kentucky Wired has helped them.”
Such “piggybacking” on the Kentucky Wired backbone is how the state-run program is going to produce the revenue to offset its cost overruns, Lutke said.
“The more providers who connect, the more revenue we have coming in,” Lutke explained.
Even a skeptic like Sheldon admits Lutke’s formula could eventually be Kentucky Wired’s saving grace.
“It was a very poorly run project that the state got too deep into too quickly,” Sheldon said. “But once you get in that deep, you have to finish it.
“I guess it’ll pay for itself in the fact that our kids and grandkids will possibly tie into this (Kentucky Wired’s infrastructure) through their internet service providers.”