BY DAVID FISHER
DRESDEN (August 18) — Tennessee Governor Bill Lee and the Financial Stimulus Accountability Group announced Friday that $61 million will be awarded in Tennessee Emergency Broadband Fund grants to improve access to broadband internet across the state.
The grants are funded through the State’s Coronavirus Relief Fund allotment from the federal government 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. Lee. “I thank the members of our Financial Stimulus Accountability Group and the Department of Economic and Community Development for their work in distributing these funds to shovel-ready projects that will directly benefit Tennesseans.”
During a meeting of the Dresden City Board held Tuesday, August 18, the board voted to move forward with a proposed Broadband Connectivity Grant to provide fiber Internet service citywide.
Dresden City Recorder Jennifer Branscum explained, West Kentucky and Tennessee Telecommunications Cooperative (WK&T) is applying for the grant and the Dresden Board of Mayor and Aldermen agreed to partner with a cable internet company to provide fiber internet service citywide.
According to WK&T CEO Trevor Bonnsteter, the grant would provide the infrastructure for all Dresden students, businesses and citizens to be connected with fiber internet.
The grant is designed to provide a means of making distance learning available for elementary through high school students, particularly if schools are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Weakley County School System is training teachers for distance- or virtual-learning as a means of providing a continuation of student education beyond in-person classes. The level of service on the educational level feed will be approximately 25 megabits of download speed and 3 megabits of upload speed.
High-speed internet will also help those working from home. Another advantage is obtaining medical diagnosis and treatment through telemedicine. Additionally, it aids commerce by providing a means for local residents to order products without leaving home.
Mayor Jeff Washburn explained during the meeting WK&T has applied for an internet-expansion grant through the State of Tennessee totaling $2,281,000. The federal government will provide the majority of the funding under the CARES Act, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The matching portion of the federal-through-state grant is $256,000.
Mayor Washburn stated, in order to participate in the connectivity grant, the City of Dresden would have a financial commitment of $30,000. The mayor noted the money could be paid from the State of Tennessee one-time grant of approximately $90,000 has een appropriated but not remitted to the city.
“It will not require a commitment of funds from the tax revenues generated by the sales tax or property tax to fund our normal day-to-day operations and would not require an increase in property taxes,” Washburn noted.
Bonnsteter stated, in addition to requesting Dresden provide $30,000 in local matching funds, WK&T is asking other unnamed entities to commit funding to go toward the grant total. WK&T will provide the remainder of the money needed to cover the total local match of $256,000.
According to Bonnsteter, Dresden is the only city in WK&T’s service area eligible under the grant guidelines to receive this grant.
There are approximately 1,250 homes and businesses without internet service in Dresden.
The grant allows WK&T to connect and provide internet connectivity to every house and business within the city limits of Dresden that doesn’t already have internet service. However, Bonnsteter noted state grant money is not available for homes or businesses that already have connectivity unless the existing internet service has less than the minimum of 12 megabits per second upload and download speed specified under the terms of the grant.
City Attorney Beau Pemberton stated Frontier’s Internet speed is not as high as that offered by WK&T. He asked if homes with Frontier qualify for the new fiber cable service.
Bonnsteter said Frontier does not meet the minimum upload and download speed requirements, so Frontier’s customers are not eligible for the service under the grant.
Additionally, the grant will pay for the installation and two to three months’ free internet service for each customer installed, depending on the amount of the grant and local matching funding provided.
After the initial service period, residents of homes receiving WK&T’s Internet service will be responsible for subscribing and paying for the monthly subscription fee, if they choose to continue service beyond the free period. According to Bonnsteter, the cost for basic service is $89 per home after the free period ends.
Bonnstetter stated WK&T would not install fiber internet to any residence or business if the owner chooses not to participate.
Former USDA Rural Development Director for Tennessee, Bobby Goode, stated Dresden will be the first small community in rural America to have 100-percent connectivity to fiber broadband internet available for every home. He noted this is quite a distinction to hold.
The project is scheduled to be completed by December 15, 2020.
A motion to provide $30,000 in matching funds for the grant passed 4 to 1, with aldermen Gwin Anderson, Lyndal Dilday, Sandra Klutts and Willie Parker voting yes; and Alderman Kenneth Moore voting no. Alderwoman Joyce Hurt was absent.
The next meeting of the Dresden Board of Mayor and Aldermen is September 14 starting at 6 p.m.
BY DAVID FISHER