FILE - Rural broadband

Earth digger used to help lay cables for rural broadband connection.

(The Center Square) – More than 34,000 Kentucky businesses and households are one step closer to having access to high-speed internet service after Gov. Andy Beshear announced the first round of infrastructure grant funding for communities across the state.

In all, 46 awards were made to a dozen internet service providers and local governments in 35 counties. The state will provide more than $89 million in funding for the projects, and when recipients’ matches are factored, the total investment in Kentucky exceeds $203 million.

“We are closing the digital divide that has existed in this state for far too long,” the governor said at a Monday press conference announcing the awards. “The pandemic really amplified just how critical it is for all Kentuckians to have reliable, affordable Internet access to stay informed and to stay connected.”

Last year, the General Assembly passed two bills with bipartisan support that established the Kentucky Broadband Deployment Fund. The fund will help internet service providers and local governments cover the cost of providing high-speed internet to areas that are either underserved or not served at all.

State Budget Director John Hicks said the state grants will reduce construction costs. Besides helping build out the infrastructure, he said the state is also committed to getting people connected.

“We’re also setting up Kentucky’s first Office of Broadband Development to help administer and create a master plan for the commonwealth to provide universal service to every Kentuckian,” Hicks said.

Among the communities selected for the first round of funding was Powell County, a rural community about 40 miles southeast of Lexington. Crystal Broadband Networks received a $255,835 grant that will help it connect more than 1,000 homes and businesses to broadband. The company is matching the state grant with an investment of $260,000 for the project.

Crystal Broadband Networks General Manager Fareed Saghir said the project will “transform the lives of thousands of people” who now will have access to telemedicine, remote learning and the ability to take part in the new economy.

“Today’s awards are a giant leap toward bridging the digital divide between urban and rural communities,” Saghir said.

The announcements will be the first of multiple grant awards announced by the state. The broadband access fund has $300 million in federal funding. Awardees must at least match the grants, which brings the overall investment potential to at least $600 million.

Besides connecting underserved and unserved communities, the broadband projects are also expected to create up to 10,000 direct and indirect jobs across the state.