The portable sign in the parking lot says FREE WiFi HOTSPOT and shows the WiFi symbol.
A vehicle pulls up, but no one gets out. The car sits for several minutes, then the driver pulls out.
This scene gets repeated daily in 10 rural counties in Eastern Kentucky because of the community-mindedness of three small communications companies.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, Mountain Rural Telephone, Peoples Rural Telephone (PRTC), and Thacker-Grigsby Telephone are providing free hotspots for families that do not have broadband at home.
The hotspots are primarily for school, community college, and GED students to complete their nontraditional instruction while face-to-face instruction is on hold. But the hotspots are available to anyone.
Each of these telecommunications companies began business over 50 years ago, bringing much needed telephone service to these remote, sparsely populated areas with descriptive names such as Possum Trot, Hard Shell, and Wheel Rim.
Mountain Rural and Peoples Rural Telephone (PRTC) are cooperatives, and Thacker-Grigsby is privately owned, and originated, as Marketing Director Monica Miller noted: “by my granny and my great uncle.”
Clustered in the western edge of the Eastern Kentucky coalfields, these small companies serve mountain communities with some of the lowest median household incomes in the nation.
Mountain Rural, based in West Liberty, has 11,000 members in Wolfe, Elliot, Menifee, and Morgan counties.
PRTC in McKee serves 7,000 members in Jackson and Owsley counties..
Thacker-Gribsy in Hindman serves 15,000 customers in Knott, Letcher, Perry, and Leslie counties.
These numbers are small compared to the service areas of big, national telecommunications companies. But they are big in the context of their service areas. County populations range from 29,000 in Perry to just under 5,000 in Owsley.
Being able to offer high-speed wireless hotspots is a result of the forethought of each of these local companies to upgrade the “old” copper telephone lines to high-speed fiber optic cable as they modernized their service in the last few years.
PRTC CEO Keith Gabbard explained that PRTC spent $50,000 a mile to upgrade and enable Jackson and Owsley counties to have some of the fastest broadband in the country, But not everyone in these counties takes advantage of the available internet. And that’s why they need hotspots.
Mountain Rural and PRTC are part of the Reconnect America Pledge, an initiative set up in early March by the Federal Communications Commission when it was apparent that nontraditional instruction and work from home would become the norm and internet access would be essential.
Quentin Murphy, assistant general manager of Mountain Rural, explained that he reached out to superintendents in their service area and learned that hotspots would be essential for students as school closures extended into late April.
Mountain Rural set up hotspots in a central location within the “exchanges” of their membership area. An exchange is the three digits of a phone number immediately following the area code. He said that the location had to have a large parking lot with a preexisting fiber optic cable. “[The hotspot] may be wireless, but there has to be a wire to get started,” he said.
He also noted that users are to stay in their cars, download what is needed and then leave, and not gather, maintaining safety at all times. Mountain Rural has set up seven hotspots — three in Morgan County, two in Wolfe, and one each in Elliot and Menifee.
PRTC has four hotspots, one in each of the three exchanges in Jackson County and one in Owsley county. “PRTC’s approximate cost of the five hotspots would be about $500 each for the nonrecurring charges for a total of $2500,” Gabbard said. “The monthly fee would be about $100 each for a speed of 1-gigabit upload and 1-gigabit download or $500 monthly.” PRTC has also increased all its customer broadband speed to 100mb upload and download with no additional charge.”
Thacker-Grigsby, while not a part of Reconnect America, was contacted by school systems about hotspots for students and has 12 across their four counties in high traffic areas. Miller said there were over 300 logins within the first week the hotspots were live.
Dr. Tim Bobrowski, superintendent of Owsley County Schools, greatly appreciated the hotspots. While 90% of the county’s 700 students have internet access, the PRTC hotspots are an extension of the system’s internet capabilities.
“PRTC has done a good job with extending the internet infrastructure and provides another option for folks that are unable to have internet in their homes and enables the student to use their school-provided Chromebooks,” Bobrowski said.
Local ownership is a point of pride for all three telecommunications companies.
“We are here for our communities,” said Murphy of Mountain Rural.
Toni Wilson Riley is a retired Christian County, Kentucky, Cooperative Extension 4-H Youth Development Agent and lives in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, on a small goat farm.