Kentucky County and Co-op Match Funds to Expand FTTH

Calloway County (pop. 39,000) in western Kentucky is known for the picturesque shorelines circling Kentucky Lake, the wildlife at Land Between The Lakes National Recreation Area, and as the home of Murray State University where Ja Morant dazzled basketball fans before becoming an NBA phenom.

Now there's a different team coming to town that will delight local residents: a new partnership between Calloway County and West Kentucky and Tennessee (WK&T) Telecommunications Cooperative will soon make this rural corner of the state known as a home for high-speed Internet connectivity, as the county and WK&T recently announced they were joining forces to expand the cooperative’s existing fiber network to reach every unserved and underserved location in the county.

Calloway County and WK&T are each committing a $6.2 million matching contribution for the first phase of the expansion project, which will see the co-op’s fiber-to-the-home network in the region extended 236 miles to serve an additional 4,274 homes and businesses. 

WK&T currently serves over 15,000 subscribers in Kentucky and Tennessee with broadband, voice, video and security services, some of whom are in Calloway County. There are also a number of households in the city of Murray, the county seat, with access to fiber service through the city-owned utility Murray Electric System (MES). Yet, thousands of premises on the outskirts of the county remain unserved by Internet Service Providers. The fiber expansion project, which the Calloway County Fiscal Court unanimously voted to pursue in early August, will ensure all county residents can benefit from access to high-speed Internet service. 

To supply their respective portions of the local match, the county has indicated it will contribute a portion of its $7.5 million in American Rescue Plan funds, while WK&T has applied for a $5.54 million Economic Development Administration grant made available through the CARES Act. 

Beyond those funding sources, the west Kentucky co-op and county have multiple other sources of funding for broadband expansion they could pursue, and are also in a strong position to benefit from Kentucky’s Broadband Deployment Fund — $250 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds Kentucky’s State Legislature allocated for FY 2022 to provide broadband access to unserved [25/3 Mbps] and underserved [10/1 Mbps] areas in Kentucky.

Two Phases Away From Countywide Fiber

The first phase of the project “will allow an estimated 4,274 Calloway County residents and businesses outside of Murray, Kentucky, to have access to WK&T’s fiber-fast Internet service, with the exception of those living in the northeastern part of the county,” said Karen Jackson-Furman, chief operating officer for WK&T, as reported by the Murray Ledger & Times. Part of the county’s initial $6.2 million allocation will go toward funding fiber Internet service to all county fire stations for the next 10 years.

The second phase of the project, which will serve 1,026 homes and businesses with fiber Internet access has yet to be funded, though “the contract says WK&T will use ‘its best efforts’ to obtain an additional $4.35 million in grants in order to extend the broadband network to the northeastern part of Calloway County,” reports the Murray Ledger. “If the company has not been able to obtain that additional money through grants after three years, then WK&T and the county would each contribute $2.175 million to finance the rest of the expansion.” 

The expansion project — expected to extend fiber Internet service to 5,300 county premises for a total cost of $16.7 million dollars — stands to have a large impact on underserved residents in the county.

Jackson-Furman said she lives in Murray outside the MES service area, but is in Spectrum’s service area. She said satellite service is sometimes available in otherwise hard-to-reach areas, and people can sometimes use their mobile plans, but they often run into trouble with reaching their data limit, reports the Murray Ledger. Others may have Internet at home, but during the Covid-19 pandemic, data caps could be a problem when they are working all day from home and their children are attending virtual classes online at the same time, she said.

Co-op’s Current Fiber Expansion Projects 

WK&T Telecommunications Cooperative has a long history of pursuing state and federal grants and developing unique partnerships to aggressively expand fiber broadband

In early 2020, WK&T received Tennessee Emergency Broadband Fund grants totaling more than $3.2 million to ensure residents in parts of Henry and Weakley counties could afford the Internet service they needed for remote schooling, working from home, and access to telehealth services. The grants awarded were part of the state's portion of the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund, according to the co-op’s newsletter the WK&T Connection [pdf]. That same year, the co-op was also awarded a USDA ReConnect grant of $610,000 to improve Internet access in Graves County, Kentucky, which lies along the northern borders of Henry and Weakley counties. 

WK&T’s network expansion in Henry, Weakley, and Graves counties advanced rapidly during the first and second quarter of 2021 with many neighborhoods in the region now ready for home installations. Residents living along the north side of Highway 69 South, which runs through Henry County, can now sign up for WK&T service. Construction crews have completed construction and are beginning to test the fiber network in Graves County. And in Weakley County, crews have completed the majority of construction in neighborhoods west of Highway 45. 

Thanks to grant funding WK&T was awarded in 2020, an estimated 350 households in Henry County; 1,100 households in Weakley County; and 4,000 households in Graves County are gaining access to high-speed Internet connectivity.

WK&T also recently agreed to provide broadband access to community anchor institutions, residents and businesses located in unserved areas of Kentucky’s Marshall County, which borders the north end of Calloway County. The decision came after WK&T and Marshall County split the $30,000 cost for an engineering study to lay out the construction plan. 

WK&T’s History of Expanding in All Directions 

Over the past decade, WK&T has received over $142.3 million in federal broadband grants, $6.6 million in state broadband grants, and invested its own funds to build fiber networks and offer service to members living in more than nine counties throughout west Kentucky, Tennessee, and southern Illinois.

According to WK&T’s website, over the past years the co-op’s fiber expansion pursuits have included: 

  • In 2009, WK&T pursued and was awarded a $123.8 million grant/loan through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — the largest amount awarded by the federal government that year through the Broadband Initiatives Program.

  • In 2016, WK&T announced fiber broadband is coming to Martin, Tennessee.

  • In 2018, WK&T announced fiber broadband is coming to Dresden, Tennessee.

  • In 2018, WK&T received a $3 million USDA Community Connect grant to bring fiber to Dukedom, Tennessee. WK&T contributed $450,000 to the project.

  • In 2019, WK&T received a $2 million matching grant from the Tennessee Department of Economic & Community Development to bring fiber broadband to the area of Henry County. WK&T will match these funds, investing more than $4 million in the fiber broadband network.

  • In 2020, WK&T received a $2 million matching grant from Tennessee Department of Economic & Community Development to build fiber in an east central portion of Weakley County near Sharon.

  • In 2020, WK&T was awarded a $1.64 million grant from the Tennessee Emergency Broadband Fund to provide fiber to 350 households in Henry County and another $1.025 million grant to bring fiber Internet to 1,120 households in Weakley County.

  • In 2020, Graves County, located west of Calloway County, partnered with WK&T to expand fiber to 4,000 locations.

  • In 2020, the cooperative was awarded a USDA ReConnect grant of $610,000 to expand fiber into Graves County, west of Calloway County, and $14.9 million to expand into five counties in southern Illinois.

The co-op offers four service tiers — 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) symmetrical Internet service for $89.90/month, 250 Mbps symmetrical for $109.90/month, 500 Mbps symmetrical for $129.90, and 1 gigabit symmetrical for $149.90/month. WK&T is also participating in the FCC's Emergency Broadband Benefit program, a federal program which is currently providing a $50 monthly credit toward the cost of Internet service for eligible households. 

Header image of Main street in Franklin by Wikimedia Commons user Piccor via Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International