Before Shani Hays began providing tech support for Apple from her home, in McKee, Kentucky, she worked at a prison as a corrections officer assigned to male sex offenders, making nine dollars an hour. After less than a year, she switched to working nights on an assembly line at a car-parts factory, where she felt safer. More recently, Hays, who is fifty-four, was an aide at a nursing home, putting in a full workweek in a single weekend and driving eighty-five miles to get there. Then her son-in-law, who was married to Hays’s oldest daughter, got addicted to crystal meth and became physically abusive. Hays’s daughter started using, too. The son-in-law went to jail. Their kids were placed in foster care. Then Hays’s stepmother got cancer. “There was a lot going on,” Hays told me. “I was just trying to keep it all together.” She began working from home last summer, which has allowed her to gain custody of her three grandchildren. (Her daughter has since completed treatment for her addiction.) During Hays’s half-hour lunch break, she makes supper. “I wouldn’t be able to do this without the Internet we have here,” she said.
McKee, an Appalachian town of about twelve hundred tucked into the Pigeon Roost Creek valley, is the seat of Jackson County, one of the poorest counties in the country. There’s a sit-down restaurant, Opal’s, that serves the weekday breakfast-and-lunch crowd, one traffic light, a library, a few health clinics, eight churches, a Dairy Queen, a pair of dollar stores, and some of the fastest Internet in the United States. Subscribers to Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative (P.R.T.C.), which covers all of Jackson County and the adjacent Owsley County, can get speeds of up to one gigabit per second, and the coöperative is planning to upgrade the system to ten gigabits. (By contrast, where I live, in the mountains above Lake Champlain, we are lucky to get three megabytes.) For nearly fifteen million Americans living in sparsely populated communities, there is no broadband Internet service at all. “The cost of infrastructure simply doesn’t change,” Shirley Bloomfield, the C.E.O. of the Rural Broadband Association, told me. “It’s no different in a rural area than in Washington, D.C. But we’ve got thousands of people in a square mile to spread the cost among. You just don’t in rural areas.”
Keith Gabbard, the C.E.O. of P.R.T.C., had the audacious idea of wiring every home and business in Jackson and Owsley Counties with high-speed fibre-optic cable. Gabbard, who is in his sixties, is deceptively easygoing, with a honeyed drawl and a geographically misplaced affection for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He grew up in McKee and attended Eastern Kentucky University, thirty-five miles down Route 421; he lives with his wife, a retired social worker, in a house next door to the one in which he grew up. “I’ve spent my whole life here,” he said. “I’m used to people leaving for college and never coming back. The ones who didn’t go to college stayed. But the best and the brightest have often left because they felt like they didn’t have a choice.” [Continue reading…]