The one traffic light town with some of the fastest Internet in the US

The one traffic(ˈtrafik) light town with some of the fastest Internet in the US

By Sue(so͞o) Halpern

Before Shani Hays(ā) began providing tech support for Apple from her home, in McKee(mə), Kentucky(kənˈtəkē), she worked at a prison(ˈprizən) as a corrections officer(ˈôfəsər, ˈäfəsər) assigned(əˈsīn) to male(māl) sex offenders(əˈfendər), making nine dollars an hour. After less than a year, she switched to working nights on an assembly(əˈsemblē) line at a car-parts factory, where she felt safer. More recently, Hays, who is fifty-four, was an aide(ād) at a nursing(ˈnərsiNG) 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(əˈdiktəd) to crystal(ˈkristl) meth(meTH) and became physically(ˈfizik(ə)lē) abusive(əˈbyo͞osiv, əˈbyo͞oziv). Hays’s daughter started using, too. The son-in-law went to jail(jāl). Their kids were placed in foster(ˈfäs-,ˈfôstər) care. Then Hays’s stepmother(ˈstepˌməT͟Hər) got cancer(ˈkansər). “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(gān) custody(ˈkəstədē) of her three grandchildren. (Her daughter has since completed treatment for her addiction(əˈdikSHən).) During Hays’s half-hour lunch break, she makes supper(ˈsəpər). “I wouldn’t be able to do this without the Internet we have here,” she said.

McKee, an Appalachian(ˌapəˈlāCH(ē)ən, ˌapəˈlāSH(ē)ən) town of about twelve hundred tucked(tək) into the Pigeon(ˈpijən) Roost(ro͞ost) Creek(krēk) valley(ˈvalē), is the seat(sēt) of Jackson(ˈjaksən) County(ˈkoun(t)ē), one of the poorest counties in the country. There’s a sit-down restaurant, Opal’s(ˈōpəl), that serves the weekday breakfast-and-lunch crowd, one traffic light, a library, a few health clinics(ˈklinik), eight churches(CHərCH), a Dairy(ˈde(ə)rē) Queen(kwēn), a pair of dollar stores(stôr), and some of the fastest Internet in the United States. Subscribers to Peoples Rural(ˈro͝orəl) Telephone Cooperative(kōˈäp(ə)rədiv) (P.R.T.C.), which covers all of Jackson County and the adjacent(əˈjāsənt) Owsley County, can get speeds of up to one gigabit(ˈɡiɡəbit) per second, and the coöperative is planning to upgrade the system to ten gigabits. (By contrast(ˈkänˌtrast), where I live, in the mountains above Lake Champlain(SHamˈplān), we are lucky to get three megabytes(ˈmegəˌbīt).) For nearly fifteen million Americans living in sparsely(ˈspärslē) populated communities, there is no broadband(ˈbrôdˌband) Internet service at all. “The cost of infrastructure(ˈinfrəˌstrəkCHər) simply doesn’t change,” Shirley Bloomfield(ˈblo͞omˌfēld), the C.E.O. of the Rural(ˈro͝orəl) Broadband Association, told me. “It’s no different in a rural area(ˈe(ə)rēə) than in Washington, D.C. But we’ve got thousands of people in a square(skwe(ə)r) mile to spread(spred) the cost among. You just don’t in rural areas.”