FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — U.S. Rep. Harold "Hal" Rogers said Wednesday that the federal government should have a continued role in spreading high-speed Internet access to the struggling coalfields of eastern Kentucky.
The Kentucky Republican said the federal spending bill passed by Congress last week included $10 million to expand broadband access to distressed areas of central Appalachia.
"I'm hopeful that this will be the beginning of federal investments for broadband in our hard-hit coalfields," Rogers told reporters at the Kentucky Capitol.
As chairman of the U.S. House Appropriations Committee, Rogers will have an influential voice in trying to direct more federal money to link underserved areas to high-speed broadband service. Rogers' district covers much of eastern Kentucky, which has areas lacking such broadband access.
Rogers expressed support for a plan outlined by Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear on Tuesday to connect all of Kentucky to high-speed Internet service.
Kentucky ranks 46th nationally in high-speed broadband availability, and nearly a quarter of the state's population lacks broadband access, Beshear said.
Most Kentucky households have access to an Internet service provider, but that's not the same as high-speed broadband, state officials said. Broadband is capable of carrying much larger volumes of information to a larger group of users.
They see broadband access as a key economic development tool, essential to luring new businesses to the coalfields and other struggling rural areas.
"We cannot get companies most of the time to even consider locating in an area that doesn't have broadband access of this type," Beshear said.
Beshear wants to leave no part of Kentucky without such broadband service.
His two-year state budget proposal calls for a $100 million project to build thousands of miles of fiber infrastructure to connect more Kentuckians to high-speed broadband service. The proposal would be supported by $60 million in state bonds, with the rest coming from federal and private sources.
Rogers said he sees it as a small investment compared to the potential economic returns for the state.
The project's first phase will focus on eastern Kentucky, which has been hard hit by a downturn in the region's coal industry. Thousands of coal mining jobs have been lost in the last couple of years as a result.
Rogers likened broadband service to the importance of interstate highways in the past.
The goal is to diversify the region's economy, and Rogers said high-speed Internet access that people in urban areas take for granted would help eastern Kentucky overcome its isolation and lack of good roads.
"It takes away our historic barriers to better jobs," he said.
The state will work with the Center for Rural Development in the first phase of the project in eastern Kentucky. The state also plans to hire a consultant soon to help with the project.