Why Rural Broadband Matters: Silicon Holler Rises Up from Old Coal Country

“Could a coal miner really code?”  “Yes” was the answer from a small group of ambitious former coal miners who knew if their town did not diversify its economy, their only other choice was moving. “Hillbillies,” they answered,  “can code!”

According to a recent article in the Guardian, more than 600,000 U.S. tech jobs go unfilled every year, jobs that end up being shipped overseas but which could be filled by Americans if only we had the skills. These jobs pay the same as those $70K a year coal mining jobs.

So in a coal mining town called Pikeville, Kentucky, a new “Bitsource” company was founded from the fingertips of 11 former coal miners. After two years, it has blossomed into the dream of carving a new Silicon Holler out of the mountain’s resources. “We’re nerds now” according to one of its 55-year-old coders.

To make their new on-shoring a reality, Pikeville City Manager, Donovan Blackburn, faces two large barriers: 1) access to modern broadband and 2) getting access to the federal funds that will help Pikeville connect to Kentucky’s unfolding fiber backbone. The Trump Administration’s 2018 budget eliminates the Appalachian Regional Commission and the U.S. Economic Development Commission which are tasked with helping Kentucky recover from the collapse of the coal industry. If Pikeville doesn’t get broadband very soon, they know they will be cut off from the modern economy despite their newly retrained coal workforce.

“In the mines, if you messed up, you could either kill someone or cost your company millions of dollars,” according to the 55-year-old coder quoted by the Guardian. This is why coal miners make good coders. “Failure for us was just not an option.”

We encourage you to come hear Pikeville’s City Manager, Donovan Blackburn, speak at CLIC Day in Dallas on May 1st, about Pikeville’s effort to transition away from coal and into a hi tech world for his mountain community. CLIC members qualify for a deep conference registration discount.  See here.