Tennessee Co-Op Broadens Rural Gigabit Reach

Chattanooga may have earned the name “Gig City,” but rural parts of the state have some catching up to do.

by Dave Flessner, Chattanooga Times/Free Press / December 28, 2017
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(TNS) — In the shadow of Gig City, rural telephone and power suppliers are taking steps to broaden their broadband coverage to give gigabit service to more rural parts of the state.

Volunteer Energy Corp., the state's second biggest electric co-op which added natural gas and propane service seven years ago, began this month to offer high-speed broadband and television to a limited area just south of Hopewell, Tenn., in Bradley County. Based upon the success of the $200,000 pilot program to about 140 homes, Volunteer Energy spokesman David Murphy said the co-op hopes to expand its broadband service, working with Twin Lakes Telephone Cooperative in Baxter, Tenn.

"We wanted the cost to be as low as possible for the pilot, so we selected the area around the Hopewell Electrical Substation," Murphy said. "The Hopewell Substation already had a fiber connection for our SCADA control."

In nearby Sequatchie and Bledsoe counties, the Bledsoe Telephone Cooperative (BTC) is also using nearly $7.9 million of USDA Rural Development loans to provide broadband fiber service to nearly 2,000 subscribers in and around Dunlap and Pikeville. The upgrades will improve traffic routing, overall functionality and network security, BTC engineer Matthew Boynton said.

"We anticipate doing our fiber optic build-out with this loan money, probably over the next couple of years," Boynton said. "We already have a contract to build 54.8 miles of fiber that will pass just over 1,900 customers."

Boynton said Bledsoe Telephone has had a long history with the USDA loan program and is sharing in a total of $207 million in loans and grants the agency announced earlier this month through USDA's Telecommunications Program, which has provided financial assistance to more than 500 telecommunications providers nationwide.

The Federal Communications Commission estimates 34 million Americans in rural communities lack access to broadband connections, including 34 percent of Tennessee's rural residents.

The American Recovery Act, the stimulus bill adopted in 2009, provided some money for broadband investments and the FCC's Connect America Fund and the USDA's Rural Utility Service provides both grants and loans for telecom investments in underserved areas.

But to supplement those programs in Tennessee, the General Assembly created a $30 million fund to support rural broadband initiatives with grants to aid broadband providers over the next three years. The bill was spearheaded by the legislators who represent Bradley County — state Reps. Kevin Brooks and Dan Howell along with state Sens. Mike Bell and Todd Gardenhire.

Volunteer and other electric co-ops and phone co-ops without existing services have applied for the grants, which are now being reviewed by the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development (ECD).

"Addressing broadband infrastructure gaps is a top priority for the department," ECD spokesman Scott Harrison said earlier this year. "It's critically important for our residents and small businesses to be able to compete in an increasingly digital economy."

Volunteer moved ahead with the Hopewell project ahead of any of the state grants to help assess the costs and interest in high-speed broadband in areas where such service is now lacking.

"VEC wanted to execute a broadband pilot in an area with a served and an underserved population (to help determine the relative interests and costs), Murphy said. "Bigsby Creek had no prior broadband service options. Camelot had at least one prior broadband service option. The uptake from the new service area will help VEC determine the feasibility of providing broadband to additional areas."

Despite such initiatives, high-speed, fiber optic connections remain the exception more than the rule in most rural parts of Tennessee, primarily because of the higher costs of serving less populated areas.

By contrast in Chattanooga, EPB since 2010 has extended fiber optic connections to all of its more than 160,000 customers, allowing up to 10-gig internet service to all homes and businesses in Chattanooga.

©2017 the Chattanooga Times/Free Press (Chattanooga, Tenn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.