The focus of FOCUS is economic development in the five-county area that PRTC (The People’s Fiber Network) also serves with a state-of-the-art, all-fiber optic network. Thanks to that network, PRTC is recognized as an NTCA Smart Rural Community. This southeastern Kentucky-based non-profit and cooperative communications provider, respectively, “Envision Rural”, as FOCUS’ tagline indicates.
That is, they are inviting people outside the region to imagine what the region could be for them and how the area’s assets could make that vision a reality. For the people living in their region, they see Envision Rural as a “call to arms” as to what could be.
In the above interview, filmed at NTCA’s 2023 SRC Live, PRTC CEO and GM Keith Gabbard provide several examples of how the Envision Rural approach has positively changed the lives of the people they serve. For instance, he cites the example of a former underemployed customer who gained new skills that led to a remote telework job with a major tech company. Gabbard describes the resulting economic uplift for this individual and his family as making a difference.
The Invisible Factory
Tal Jones, Economic Development Director of FOCUS, describes the job growth from remote work opportunities as an invisible or virtual factory. Unlike traditional economic development approaches that focus on a few employers for most of the job growth, targeting remote work focuses on the people who will be doing the work for many employers. This naturally diversifies the employment base, providing a level of resiliency compared to an economy with a few large employers.
This approach also means that there is no lag that comes from having to design, permit, and build factories and other infrastructure-heavy employment opportunities. The fiber network is the critical infrastructure and, given that it is already operating, jobs can be provided in an instant.
The most critical resource is the people who will fill those jobs. As a result, workforce development was a priority for the program partners that, in addition to FOCUS and PRTC, included the local county and cities, EKCEP, Jackson Energy Cooperative, SKED, SOAR, and Teleworks USA. In a follow-up conversation, Gabbard emphasized that it was the cooperation between the cooperatives and other like-minded civic and non-profit groups that was the reason for the program’s success.
Beyond the network and workforce development, the coalition collectively brought the physical spaces to serve as training hubs. Gabbard explains that PRTC has also offered various forms of starter programs to help those without the Internet gain employment.
And a Virtual Living Room
One of the benefits of being named an NTCA Smart Rural Community was a visit to the White House as part of a 2014 rural health summit. This led to a pilot project with the Veterans Administration for the first virtual telehealth care project.
An NTCA grant helped bring this “Virtual Living Room” to life. The partnership with the Jackson County, KY library brought the physical space where the veterans could receive remote and private telehealth services. At the same time, the librarians were there to assist the patients in setting up the connection and cameras.
PRTC’s fiber network was the umbilical cord connecting the Lexington VA Medical Center with the Jackson County library. From a veteran’s perspective, this remote extension could save “a day’s worth of travel.”
The Story Continues to Unfold
The fiber network is at the center of an ecosystem that enables new jobs and a broader tax base than before. Jones explains how new opportunities from vacation rentals to crypto mining continue to diversify the economy, attract new jobs, and increase property values. While the economic development story of FOCUS is still unfolding, being a Smart Rural Community is sure to be a central part of this region’s success.
- 00:13 – Keith tells the story of an unemployed person who was able to get a remote work job and how it changed that person’s life.
- 01:17 – Tal describes the region and its assets.
- 02:13 – PRTC was the first to offer a virtual telehealth center for veterans.
- 03:33 – Using a hub approach, a telework program was added to help bring jobs to the region.
- 05:29 – This virtual approach is more resilient. Tal calls it an “invisible factory.”
- 06:19 – From coal to crypto mining
- 07:16 – Fiber allows PRTC to serve the 5-county region with only 52 employees.
- 08:26 – PRTC is a cooperative at its core with CLEC operations owned by the coop. Branding is common between the coop and CLEC.
- 09:17 – The Smart Rural Community brand is like a “wild card in your hand,” from an economic development perspective.
- 09:54 – Vacation rentals have become significant in the five-county region. This is important as at least one of the counties doesn’t have a motel or hotel.
- 11:41 – Tourism is another one of the region’s assets.
- 12:39 – Keith describes how a writer from the New Yorker did a story about PRTC and how that led to a new connection with someone from New Jersey.
- The Race E35 Technology in America – Part 1 of 4 –the first four minutes features interviews with Gabbard as well as PRTC’s customers.
- The Boone Forest Rally mentioned by Tal Jones in the above interview.
- The New Yorker article that features PRTC