BY DAVID FISHER
DRESDEN (May 14) — The availability of millions of dollars in additional grant funding for installing fiber internet cable was the top item for discussion during Thursday afternoon’s meeting of the Weakley County Fiber Research Committee held at the courthouse in downtown Dresden. The committee voted to apply for another round of grants and match the grant with local funds.
One month after Weakley County was notified it was awarded a $2 million Economic Community Development (ECD) grant from the State of Tennessee, state officials announced additional grant funding totaling $248 million is available statewide from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) on a first-come, first-serve basis. The money is made available through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act” or the “CARES Act”.
In reference to the availability of additional grant funding at a time when interest rates are extremely low, Commissioner Roger Donaldson said, “We have to take advantage of this.”
West Kentucky and Tennessee Telecommunications Cooperative (WK&T) CEO Trevor Bonnstetter stated it would cost $25.5 million to provide high-speed internet cable service to every household in Weakley County. However, since this is probably more than what Weakley County could afford, Bonnstetter suggested applying for $2 million in grant funding instead.
He added, “We can try for a Hail Mary and ask for more money, but most grants being awarded are for $1 million to $2 million.” He stated a much larger grant application might be rejected.
As with the first $2 million grant the county received April 13, 2020, the second grant, if approved, would provide another $2 million in grant funding.
The first project will cost $6 million to be funded from three sources – Weakley County Government, WK&T, and an ECD grant from the State of Tennessee, with each contributing $2 million. Bonnstetter stated the two-year project involves installing 138 miles of fiber cable, along mostly rural highways, and provide access to service to 1,383 customers.
However, the grant will not provide fiber cable service to all underserved sections of the county. The project could be considered as Phase I with Phase II extending fiber cable to additional areas of the county not covered under the first grant.
Phase I provides fiber to the highest number of households that can be served.
Bonnstetter explained, “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. Bonnstetter 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. He added, “Then a remote site can be installed to feed these locations.”
Some of the areas that will not have fiber cable 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.
Weakley County Mayor Jake Bynum stated local funding for Phase I will come out of the 2020-2021 FY budget, while Phase II would be funded in the 2022-2023 FY budget.
The second phase of the fiber project, which would expand public access to fiber internet cable to many more areas, would cost another $6 million. The cost breakdown would be based on the same formula, with Weakley County Government, WK&T, and the EDA contributing $2 million each.
Bonnstetter stated Weakley County Government may pay their portion of the costs of the grants in one-lump sum or over time. However, the county won’t have to pay or begin to pay its share of the cost until the project is completed. “The earliest you would have a payment to us would be sometime in 2022.”
Commissioner Eric Owen stated, with the current low interest rates, the county would have a significant cost savings if the money borrowed for the project is set up on a 15-year note instead of a 30-year note.
Phase II would add another 1,140 homes, along 120 miles of roadway.
Under Phase II, four additional remote anchor sites will be installed, which will allow the citizens in those areas to have WiFi service. The two phases combined call for having a total of 14 anchor sites.
At last month’s meeting, Bonnstetter stated there was no more grant money available in the foreseeable future. However, with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in many businesses being closed, tax revenues took a nosedive, leaving local counties and municipalities with diminished tax revenues with which to operate. In response to these events, federal and state governments have approved stimulus money to bolster the economy.
Although these funds may be used for a variety of things, public access to fiber internet cable is a high priority. According to several Weakley County commissioners, 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. The importance of having the service for all students was highlighted when the coronavirus resulted in school closings. Because there are many homes without internet access, local school officials could not have virtual classrooms for all of their students. Having classes via the internet for some, but not all, students would be unfair to those without internet service.
Commissioner Dennis Doster asked Bonnstetter if he knew what roads would be covered under the second phase. The WK&T CEO said, “I have some ideas, but the project has not yet been engineered, so I don’t know for sure. I don’t have a map to bring you today.”
Commissioner Donaldson stated he would like Fiber Committee members to have more input regarding the location of the WiFi hotspots.”
Bonnstetter stated the committee will choose the location of the four hotspots included in Phase II.
According to Bonnstetter, WK&T began working on the application on May 7 in preparation for the May 14 meeting with the Fiber Committee, so if the committee members were to agree to present it to the full Weakley County Commission, they will already have part of the paperwork completed.
Commissioner Gary Eddings stated, due to uncertainty concerning tax revenues, proposed cuts in department budgets, and the possibility there will be no employee raises in the 2021-2022 FY budget, he is uncertain how the full commission will vote regarding borrowing another $2 million for Phase II of the fiber internet project.
“We’re hoping this cut you’re talking about will only be for one year, and we’ll be back on track next year,” Commissioner Donaldson said. “We’re living in very unusual circumstances, but I would hate to see us not take advantage of getting $4 million for putting $2 million in. I would hope people will understand how important it is. We can’t afford not to do fiber, in today’s world, if we want to stop losing our college graduates, our children and our grandchildren. I think it’s well worth at least applying. Every year that I’ve been on the Commission (seven years), we’ve been able to give good raises and take care of our people.”
“We talk about the times we’re in now, but if we weren’t in these times, we wouldn’t have access to this money,” Donaldson added.
Commissioner Eric Owen said the county’s budget might be in much better financial shape when payments begin on the project in 2022-2023 FY.
A motion to apply for a $2 million grant for the purpose of expanding fiber internet service to additional areas of Weakley County, made by Commissioner Donaldson and seconded by Commissioner Eddings, was unanimously approved. A resolution outlining the terms of the agreement will be presented during the May 26 meeting of the Weakley County Commission.
BY DAVID FISHER