BY DAVID FISHER
DRESDEN (April 22) — During the April 22 meeting of the Weakley County Fiber Research Committee, several county commissioners discussed their concerns regarding the lack of adequate communication between the committee and West Kentucky and Tennessee Telecommunications Cooperative (WK&T), regarding planning for the implementation of a grant to install fiber internet cable in rural areas of the county. They also expressed their displeasure over the planned location of the fiber cable lines, which will not be installed in some of the most under-served areas.
As stated in many previous meetings, the reason fiber high-speed internet service is so essential is because it is needed by local businesses, colleges and students, to function properly and be competitive with neighboring counties.
As Wednesday’s meeting opened, WK&T CEO Trevor Bonnstetter provided maps to the commissioners indicating where the fiber lines would be located. The project calls for building a fiber network in the east-central portion of Weakley County near Sharon, with Martin to the north and Dresden to the east. Major state highways passing through include Highway 54, Highway 43, Highway 89, Mt. Vernon Road, 3 Point Road and Highway 22.
The $6 million project is to be funded from three sources – Weakley County Government, WK&T, and an Economic Community Development (ECD) grant from the State of Tennessee, with each contributing $2 million. Weakley County received notification it was awarded the ECD grant on April 13.
Bonnstetter stated the two-year project involves installing 138 miles of fiber cable to provide service to 1,383 customers.
However, the grant will not provide fiber cable service to all under-served sections of the county. The project could be considered as Phase I with Phase II extending fiber cable to those areas of the county not covered under the current grant.
In the meantime, those unserved areas will have access to 10 remote anchor sites. This will allow the citizens in those areas to have WiFi service at local churches or other public buildings without having to drive to an internet hotspot in neighboring municipalities. Some of the sites will be located in the Dukedom and Latham area and around the edge of Dresden and Martin.
Fiber Committee Chairman David Bell said the Weakley County Commission knew $6 million was not going to fund the installation of internet fiber across the entire county. “The idea was to pick the highest number of households that could be served.” He added that no one knew exactly where the fiber was going to be installed.
Although committee members stated they support expanding internet fiber to more areas of the county, they expressed their displeasure over internet service not being installed in some districts.
Commissioner Roger Donaldson said, “I’m for fiber. It’s been one of my passions. However, I’m very disappointed the way this came out; because my district (District 8) and Commissioner Dennis Doster’s district (District 1) are the most under-served, not only in the county, but in the entire state. I’m very disappointed that we’re not delivering our people anything. I would hope, if we pursue future grants, we would have more input.”
Donaldson added that he didn’t find out the grant had been approved and where the fiber cable was going to be installed, until he read it in the newspaper.
“I’d like to see more communication,” Donaldson said. “I understand you have to answer to your shareholders, but we have to answer to the citizens of Weakley County, and ultimately, you will too. So, what I hope will happen, when we talk about these 10 locations, is that we spread them far and wide over the entire county, and everybody will get something. I would like to have seen more remote sites over the county. I’m not here to offend anybody, but I will have to express my disappointment, because I’ve got to tell the people in my district ‘You have to keep waiting.’”
Commissioner Doster said, “When we began talking about this, I understood that we were going to go into remote areas that are very much under-served, and provide internet service for people who don’t have it now. It’s not spread out whatsoever. What has happened is, we went to the heaviest populated areas and gave them fiber. We are taxpayers from all over the county and we’re looking for something for our money; but that’s not happening. Disappointed does not begin to express how I feel about this.”
According to Doster, there is a problem in the northern and northeastern sections of the county involving the lack of radio and cellular phone communications with the Weakley County Sheriff’s Office, Weakley County EMS and first responders. He suggested a dish placed on top of the tower at Palmersville Fire Department could provide cellular phone service to the area. “There is no communication during an emergency with anybody in that part of the county.”
“We have nothing in our district, and yet, we always seem to be footing the bill for the rest of the county for some of the nicer things,” Bonnstetter said. “When there is any kind of progress being made, it seems like District 1 is the one being called upon to always give and never receive.”
Bonnstetter responded by saying, “We did a study on the best way to spend the money for the county, for ECD and for us.” He stated he looked at how to reach the most citizens with the least amount of money. He noted the data collected from WK&T’s survey and an engineering study provided the information upon which decisions were made regarding where to locate the fiber cable. He stated the properties adjacent to where the cable has already been installed are the most economical; because the network can be extended from the end of the existing lines. Then a remote site can be installed to feed these locations.”
Commissioner Eddings said, “This is the first time I’ve had communications from anybody or seen the map. I’ve asked questions and nobody could give us answers. After the surveys, I asked, ‘how can you apply for a grant when you don’t even know where you’re going to build it until after you get the money?” He stated communications with the Fiber Committee was lacking. Eddings said he was glad his district is getting fiber as part of the current project, but, added, “I didn’t know that until I got this map (today).” Eddings stated he supports the project, but wants to continue pursuing grants to install fiber cable to all areas of Weakley County.
“We’ve never presented anything to the commission except those areas that don’t have service,” Bonnstetter replied.
When asked about installing fiber cable to all rural areas at once, Bonnstetter stated it would cost $25,553,000 and the county’s part would be $12,776,500.
“I think we all know how important the internet is right now,” Bonnstetter said. “Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the amount of information people need access to from home, and the educational issues that have taken place, make it more important than ever to have internet access.”
“We’re all trying to get to the same place, we’re just going in different directions to get there,” Donaldson said. He stated, when he gets calls from government officials asking him ‘what does the county need?’, “I tell them, we need fiber.”
With no further business to discuss, the meeting adjourned.
BY DAVID FISHER