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Rural America Is Building Its Own Internet Because No One Else Will


Big Telecom has little interest in expanding to small towns and farmlands, so rural America is building its own solutions.

Broadband Land is an ongoing Motherboard series about the digital divide in America. Follow along here.

Dane Shryock walked over to a map hanging on the wall of the county commissioners' office in downtown Coshocton. He ran his finger along a highway to point out directions to a family farm, where he told me I'd find an antenna placed atop a tall blue silo.

"You're going to want to go straight down 36, turn left on this county road," Shryock, one of three county commissioners in Coshocton, Ohio, said. "There's a cemetery on the left, and then you'll see a big red barn."

I snapped a photo of the map. The old-school directions were necessary because the address doesn't exactly show up on Google Maps and, besides, my phone lost all signal after about the third hill on that county road. It was a blistering hot July day in Appalachian Ohio and I was on a mission to see firsthand how rural communities have stopped waiting for Big Telecom to bring high-speed internet to them and have started to build it themselves.

About 19 million Americans still don't have access to broadband internet, which the Federal Communication Commission defines as offering a minimum of 25 megabits per second download speeds and 3mbps upload speeds. Those who do have broadband access often find it's too expensive, unreliable, or has prohibitive data caps that make it unusable for modern needs.

In many cases, it's not financially viable for big internet service providers like Comcast and CharterSpectrum to expand into these communities: They're rural, not densely populated, and running fiber optic cable into rocky Appalachian soil isn't cheap. Even with federal grants designed to make these expansions more affordable, there are hundreds of communities across the US that are essentially internet deserts.

But in true heartland, bootstrap fashion, these towns, hollows—small rural communities located in the valleys between Appalachia hills—and stretches of farmland have banded together to bring internet to their doors. They cobble together innovative and creative solutions to get around the financial, technological, and topological barriers to widespread internet. And it's working, including on that farm down the county road in Coshocton.

It's just one example of a story that's unfolding across America's countryside. Here, a look at three rural counties, in three different states, demonstrates how country folk are leading their communities into the digital age the best way they know how: ingenuity, tenacity, and good old-fashioned hard work.

Letcher County, Kentucky

Letcher County is in the heart of coal country. The 300-square-mile, 25,000-person corner of Kentucky is tucked just across the border from Virginia. It's rippled with endless rolling hills, dense forest, little towns, and boarded-up mines. Like many similar communities, the county has been hard hit by the waning coal industry.

Image: Nate Milton/Motherboard

But while politicians, including President Donald Trump, rally around the promise to "bring coal back," the residents in many of these communities would rather look to the future. And in their mind, that future depends on high-speed internet.

"We view it as the next economic revolution for coal towns," said Harry Collins, the chairman of the Letcher County Broadband Board, which formed late last year. "The majority of our railroad tracks are ripped up now—that revolution has played out. We feel that this [digital] revolution is just as game changing and life changing as those railroad tracks were in the 20s and 30s."