IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Cumberland County, Tenn., May Tap ARPA Funds for Broadband

Cumberland County Mayor Allen Foster has proposed using American Rescue Plan Act money, $3 million specifically, to help close the digital divide in the county. The county has a total of $11.74 million in ARPA funds.

Broadband cable
(TNS) — Cumberland County Mayor Allen Foster hopes the county can leverage its American Rescue Plan funds to help expand Internet access across the county.

The budget committee of the Cumberland County Commission recommended approval of a resolution Tuesday that would allocate $3 million of the county's $11.74 million in federal COVID-19 relief for broadband expansion.

"I think we can help more people get broadband," Foster told the panel as he explained his proposal.

The county's funding is part of $350 billion approved in the American Rescue Plan Act approved by Congress in March. The funds are to help communities respond to the pandemic, but governments must use the funds in specific ways or risk having to repay the money. That's why Foster previously advised the commission to wait on planning how to spend the windfall.

"We're finally getting some movement on ARP funds with the state," Foster told the panel.

The state has designated $400 million of their allotment of federal ARP funds for broadband Internet expansion. The state's Broadband Accessibility Grant program has offered matching grants in the past, but funding was limited to $20 million in 2020.

The grant programs require Internet service providers to pay a portion of the project costs — a match. Foster said the state is tentatively set to require a 30% match for broadband projects, with the state funding 70% of the cost.

Foster talked with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to see if the county could help grant recipients in Cumberland County meet the funding match requirements.

"They're doing the [Request for Proposals], they're selecting the winners instead of us. They're picking the best grants. Then we would give a portion of that grant match out of county funds," Foster explained.

The resolution Foster presented would provide 10% to 20% of the matching funds up to a maximum of $3 million.

"With $400 million, I think there's a real possibility that more than one company gets picked," he said, adding he knew of at least three and possibly a fourth company planning to apply.

Companies can get extra points on the grant scoring if their county has committed to helping pay the matching portion, Foster said. Plus, the county would have the extra assurance the project meets federal requirements if approved by the state.

And, should there still be an area of need after the grants are announced, the county could go forward with its own grant process.

David Gibson, 4th District commissioner, moved to approve the resolution, supported by Kyle Davis, 2nd District commissioner. The motion was unanimously approved.

Numerous areas of the county have struggled to access reliable high-speed Internet service. It was among the top issues Foster heard about when he ran for office in 2018.

At the time, the maps used by the Federal Communications Commission showed much of the county was served by high-speed Internet — defined as Internet with 25 megabytes per second download speed and 3 megabytes per second upload speed. uBt the maps used data from the Internet service providers, and so long as one household in a census tract was served with the appropriate speed, the entire block was considered to have access.

Foster launched a survey and residents shared their Internet speed data that showed vast swaths of the county lacked high-speed Internet. That data helped Internet providers challenge the FCC maps and compete for state and federal grants to extend service.

Since February 2020, the county has seen six grants awarded to providers to expand access to Internet service:

  • February 2020, $2.2 million USDA Reconnect Grant to Ben Lomand to serve 222 homes across about 100 square miles in the areas of Smith Mountain, Millstone Mountain and Long Rockhouse Branch near Crab Orchard and north of Fairfield Glade west toward No Business Creek and Clear Creek.

  • April 2020, $2 million grant from the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development to Ben Lomand to serve about 1,500 locations in the Hwy. 127 N. area.

  • October 2020, $1.9 million USDA Reconnect Grant to Ben Lomand to serve 84 addresses and about 25 square miles in the southwestern portion of the county.

  • December 2020, $3.3 million CARES Act grant to Volunteer Energy Cooperative and Twin Lakes to extend service in the Cumberland Cove area.

  • February 2021, $4.8 million Rural Digital Opportunity Fund grant to Charter Communications to extend service to about 6,000 additional homes in the county. The new service areas account for about 20% of all households in the county.

  • March 2021, $1.9 million Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development grant to Ben Lomand to expand service to 1,125 locations in the county.

Applications for the state grants are due in March, with awards tentatively set for announcement in early summer 2022.

A second resolution regarding the county ARP funds will help the South Cumberland Utility District complete a waterline extension in the Head of the Sequatchie in southern Cumberland County.

The project was first announced in 2019 when SCUD was awarded a Community Development Block Grant to extend the water lines to about 30 homes on East Valley Rd., Sequatchie Valley Rd., Upper East Valley Rd., Old Hwy. 28, E.G. Wilson Rd., Wilson Cemetery Rd. and Tranquility Lane.

The project was estimated at $1.2 million, with $468,865 from the CDBG grant and another $350,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission. The project has stalled since late 2019, Foster said, and just recently went out for bid.

"Bids came back about $1 million off," he said.

The resolution would provide up to $250,000 of its ARP funds to help cover the shortfall, which makes up about 20% of the total shortfall. Additional funding could come from the state's water infrastructure funds, if approved by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

"We're trying to figure out a way to help South Cumberland," Foster said. "If TDEC will give 80% of that shortfall, the county will do the 20%. And if TDEC doesn't do the 80%, so long as it meets the federal requirements, we'll still do the 20%."

Rebecca Stone, 3rd District commissioner, asked if all utility districts in the county would have an opportunity for funding through the ARP money.

Timing necessitated bring the SCUD project to the commission at this time, Foster said, but other utility districts will have an opportunity to secure funding, too.

"This is just the first one," he said.

Foster said the state received $1.3 billion for water infrastructure projects across the state, with Cumberland County to receive $7.1 million to help the state allocate.

The city of Crossville, which operates its own utility department and the Catoosa Water Department, will receive a separate allocation from the state for water infrastructure.

Davis moved to approve the resolution, supported by Chad Norris, 1st District commissioner. The resolution was unanimously approved.

©2022 Crossville Chronicle, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.