ASHLAND Congressman Hal Rogers and Governor Steve Beshear announced last week that statewide broadband expansion has taken its first physical strides in becoming a reality.

A public-private partnership has been formed between the state and Macquarie Capital, a tech team that will be developing the fiber “backbone” infrastructure for the high-speed Internet. It is expected to be operational in two years.

The vision for statewide broadband connectivity is part of the Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative spearheaded by Rogers that met for its kickoff summit last December.

Ashland Mayor Chuck Charles attended the summit in Pikeville and has advocated for broadband expansion ever since.

He said during a breakout session, he remembered a lady who worked for Microsoft speaking up about how she can work from home using her technology. Because she loves to rock climb, she said she wanted to live in eastern Kentucky, but could not do so because of poor Internet speeds.

Kentucky currently ranks 46th in the U.S. for broadband availability, and 23 percent of rural areas in Kentucky do not have access to broadband at all, according to the release.

Because of this, Charles said he encourages the city of Ashland to advocate for the initiative along with him, in order to give the area a new type of economic advantage.

Tim Gibbs, president of the Ashland Alliance, Greenup and Boyd counties’ chamber of commerce, said improving Kentucky’s Internet connectivity is equally important to developing other types of infrastructure, like roads.

“Most of our infrastructure development in the U.S. is on roads and interstate corridors. This (broadband expansion) is a transportation corridor for data,” he said.

Charles and Gibbs both said they believed connectivity developments are taking economic development in eastern Kentucky down a new path, but that it is one worth traveling.

“Sometimes you have to take chances,” Charles said. “It’s like that saying: the fruit is on the edge of the limb, you just have to go out and get it.”

“For me, this is turning out to be a powerful tool for development in our region,” Gibbs said. “It may not be development as we think of it today. This will focus on programmers, coders, home-based businesses…. I don’t see a downside to greater connectivity in eastern Kentucky.”

Rogers announced in the release that eastern Kentucky will be at the forefront of the initiative, with some of the first connections slated to be laid in the mountain region.

LANA BELLAMY can be reached at lbellamy@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2653. For Twitter updates, follow @lanabellamy_DI.