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Tennessee County Approves Rural Broadband Expansion

The Hamilton County Commission has unanimously approved a broadband deal that will benefit more than 1,000 county residents, part of a broader effort to expand high-speed Internet beyond Chattanooga's Gig City.

Rural Broadband
(TNS) — The Hamilton County Commission on Wednesday unanimously approved a broadband deal that will benefit more than 1,000 county residents, part of a broader effort to expand high-speed internet well beyond Chattanooga's Gig City.

More than a decade after Chattanooga launched its gigabit network, many households in rural communities in Southeast Tennessee remain without broadband services. The expansion will be partially funded through the American Rescue Plan Act, passed last year by Democrats in Congress.

"This is greatly, greatly needed," Commissioner Steve Highlander, R- Ooltewah, said last week during the Hamilton County Commission's agenda session.

He added that his district has lacked broadband access and it has been the largest request among his constituents.

Local power and telephone co-ops are seeking to broaden the availability of high-speed internet connections that are increasingly vital for schools, jobs and even modern health care.

A $6.2 million project proposed in northern Hamilton County, which would add broadband service to 1,395 more homes and businesses around Birchwood, was endorsed Wednesday by Hamilton County commissioners and is part of more than $125 million of projects that Volunteer Energy Cooperative is proposing to bring its fiber-optic network into underserved parts of eight counties in East Tennessee.

The county will put up a 10% match, which equates to $615,671.

"There's a high level of interest in reaching underserved areas of our state because I think many people now recognize that broadband service is just as vital today as what electricity was when TVA [the Tennessee Valley Authority] came in in 1933 to bring power to areas that were without electricity," Brian Solsbee, president of the Tennessee Municipal Electric Power Association, said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "High-speed internet service is just as critical to every citizen in the state of Tennessee as what electricity was 90 years ago. These opportunities need to be explored."

The Federal Communications Commission said about 14 million Americans don't have access to broadband at the speeds necessary to work and study online — 25 megabits per second downloads and 3 Mbps uploads — and other groups have made even higher estimates.

In Tennessee, the state estimates that more than 600,000 Tennesseans, or 27% of the state's households, don't have access to a wired connection capable of 25 Mbps download speed.

Last year, Gov. Bill Lee laid out plans to use $500 million of COVID-19 stimulus funds to help expand Tennessee's broadband internet service.

Volunteer Energy Cooperative and other co-ops are seeking grants through the Tennessee Emergency Broadband Fund, which the state has established with money from the American Rescue Plan.

Taylre Beaty, director of broadband services for the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, said the state is currently in the application window for the Tennessee Emergency Broadband-American Rescue Plan grant program. Tennessee's Fiscal Stimulus Accountability Group allocated $400 million for the grant program and $100 million for broadband adoption. The application window closes on March 15, 2022.

Eligible entities are those that are authorized to provide broadband in Tennessee including for-profit, nonprofit and municipal government entities. Eligible areas are those where at least 80% of the geographic area lacks service with at least 100 Mbps downloads and 20 Mbps uploads, with priority given to areas that lack a minimum of 25 Mbps downloads and 3 Mbps uploads.

The state of Tennessee requires a 70/30 match rate for grant recipients, so the department will reimburse 70 cents on the dollar for eligible costs. Awardees are responsible for their 30% match portion, and it can be a combination of their own funding and/or leveraged match funding, including funding from the local government.

"We anticipate making award announcements in June," Beaty said in an email Wednesday to the Times Free Press. "More information on the $100 million for broadband adoption will be announced in fall of 2022."

Volunteer Energy began offering telecom services in underserved parts of Bradley County five years ago.

The Decatur, Tennessee-based power co-op is now preparing grant requests, with 10% matching money from each county, to lay fiber-optic lines and extend broadband services to up to 26,543 homes and businesses that currently can't access high-speed internet service because there is no internet service provider for broadband in their area. If approved, the grants would help build out the broadband networks over the next three years, according to Volunteer Energy Cooperative officials.

Bledsoe Telephone Cooperative, which serves about 10,000 customers in parts of Bledsoe, Van Buren, Cumberland, Rhea and Sequatchie counties, is seeking state grants to build out a $33 million expansion of its fiber-optic network to serve another 7,700 homes and businesses that now lack access to broadband service. Bledsoe Telephone launched its Gig, or 1 gigabit per second, service in 2016, but it still has many rural customers who lack high-speed internet.

"This would allow us to serve all of our customers with broadband coverage, which we've seen during this pandemic is often critical for education, for doing work and for a host of other services," Bledsoe Telephone Engineering Coordinator Matthew Boynton said in a telephone interview.

Beyond the current state broadband assistance program, more funds are expected to be provided to expand broadband in future years through the $1 trillion infrastructure package that President Biden signed into law in November. In that package Congress allocated nearly $42.5 billion more for states to help with broadband deployment, mapping and adoption projects under the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program along with another $6 billion for the Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure program and other initiatives to help bridge the digital divide between those with and those without broadband service.

Former Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke was named earlier this month as a special representative for broadband at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to help states and tribal territories develop and implement plans for the new round of assistance.

© 2022 the Chattanooga Times/Free Press (Chattanooga, Tenn.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.