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Tennessee Invests Nearly $7M in Broadband Expansion Efforts

The $6.9 million in grants is part of $61 million in emergency grants funded through Tennessee’s Coronavirus Relief Fund. The funding will go toward “shovel-ready” projects in several areas.

by Heather Mullinix, Crossville Chronicle / August 25, 2020
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(TNS) — Volunteer Energy Cooperative received $6.9 million in grants from the Tennessee Emergency Broadband Fund, allowing the energy cooperative to extend broadband access in areas of Cumberland Cove in Cumberland County, Ten Mile in Meigs and Roane counties and Ooltewah Georgetown Rd. in Hamilton County.

The grants are part of $61 million in emergency grants funded through Tennessee’s Coronavirus Relief Fund and distributed through the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has only further elevated the importance of access to reliable, affordable broadband Internet to facilitate telemedicine, distance learning and telecommuting,” said Gov. Bill Lee last week.

The state received 84 applications for projects totaling $89.1 million in funding. Friday, 62 projects representing $61.1 million in funding were approved. The remaining $28 million in projects were denied due to a number of factors, including project feasibility, applicant experience and public comments received from existing broadband providers.

The state was looking for “shovel-ready” projects, Lee said, and VEC said their three projects fit that description. Each of the three projects had previously been submitted for other grant opportunities, so pre-engineering was already complete. The cooperative was also able to acquire the materials for each project and can bring on additional contract crews to expedite the installation of fiber.

Work will begin in the next few weeks. All projects funded through the emergency grant program must be completed by Dec. 15, 2020.

“The emergence of COVID-19 greatly accelerated the need for widespread access to broadband. As all of us adjust to the new normal of social distance, technology becomes even more critical to study, work and socialize,” said Lt. Gov. Randy McNally. “These dollars will allow for implementation of greatly needed projects crucial to bringing us together virtually as we strive to stay apart physically.”

Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said, “This $61 million investment in additional broadband grants, in conjunction with the $60 million the General Assembly has already appropriated, will continue to increase access to high speed Internet services across Tennessee. Our families, schools, businesses, and health care communities will benefit from this enhanced broadband infrastructure. I appreciate Gov. Lee, Lt. Gov. McNally, our Accountability Group members and the General Assembly for their ongoing efforts to help strengthen Tennessee’s infrastructure; we will continue working together to identify and create solutions that address both our immediate and our emerging, long-term needs.”

Tennessee also offers the Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Grant Program funded at $15 million this year, where applicants can submit projects requiring more time to complete.

Per federal guidelines, the CARES Act-funded projects were limited to those that would enhance broadband access for individuals and families affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Grant applications were taken from entities authorized to provide broadband service in Tennessee. Eligible areas were limited to those unserved or underserved with little to no broadband connection capable of supporting telemedicine, distance learning and telecommuting.

Earlier this year, VolFirst was awarded a $2.24 million grant to expand broadband Internet access to about 100 square miles and 222 homes in remote sections of Cumberland County.

Cumberland County Mayor Allen Foster said in February, “They will have to go down all these roads to areas like Smith Mountain and Clear Creek,” Foster told the Chronicle. “They’ll be passing a lot of people who they can serve later.”

VolFirst was also awarded a $2 million grant through the Tennessee broadband accessibility grant program to expand service to as many as 1,600 households north of Interstate 40 in Cumberland County.

©2020 the Crossville Chronicle, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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