BY DAVID FISHER
DRESDEN (March 1) — Members of the Fiber Research Committee met Monday to discuss recent developments regarding the installation of fiber broadband internet service countywide.
An agreement between Weakley County Government and West Kentucky and Tennessee (WK&T) Telecommunications calls for the county to provide up to $10.5 million and WK&T the same amount or more to complete the project, costing an estimated $26 million.
The project is being funded, in part, with various grants.
A portion of the first project, costing $6 million, is funded from three sources – Weakley County Government, WK&T, and an ECD grant from the State of Tennessee, with each contributing $2 million.
The second grant, if approved, would provide another $2 million in grant funding, with Weakley County Government and WK&T supplying $2 million each, for a total of $6 million.
Phase I of the two-year project involves installing 138 miles of fiber cable, along mostly rural highways, which will provide service to 1,383 customers.
Commissioner Roger Donaldson commented on the current status of the project, saying, “Basically, what has happened, we entered into a partnership with WK&T and they were going to apply for Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) grant, which was the third grant application submitted. We were pretty sure we’d get the grant because of the amount of money we put in, but Charter underbid us. But, WK&T, which applied for $6 million, wasn’t able to secure any RDOF grants in this round of grant applications.”
“It’s put us in a situation now where we don’t know what Charter’s going to do,” Donaldson said. “Charter got $2.8 million, but the total build-out is about $26 million.”
Donaldson stated $2.8 million is not nearly enough to install wireless fiber internet countywide, which is what the county and WK&T are planning to do by partnering to obtain the funds necessary to complete the project. Under this plan, Weakley County Government will provide $10.5 million and WK&T the rest.
According to Donaldson, the county will likely receive its second $2 million grant, which will be supplemented by $2 million from the county and $2 million from WK&T, for a total of $6 million.
Donaldson estimated WK&T will most likely finish Phase I by May 2021.
“We’re in an uncertain position right now until we find out more,” he added. “It’s my understanding WK&T will still honor its agreement, but we need to meet with them and see what their plans are.
“We’re hopeful we’ll be awarded some of the $200 million allocated for the construction of broadband networks in rural communities statewide, in the next bid auction.” If approved, this will be the third grant to help fund Weakley County’s fiber network project.
“There were a lot of complaints about the way the auction was done,” Donaldson said. “We feel like many people underbid and cannot do what they promised to do. A lot of the companies are upset and want bidders to be vetted better next time to make sure they can do what they’re bidding on.” He stated some of these companies simply don’t have the resources to do what they have promised.
The goal of the Vision for Broadband in Rural America — the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) is to make sure education, health care, economic development and quality of life in rural areas will no longer be negatively impacted by the lack of fiber infrastructure.
“It’s an ongoing process,” Donaldson said. “I just urge everyone to be patient. We’re working on it.”
“My hope is to form some sort of a partnership and work with Charter,” Donaldson said. “But, so far, no representative from Charter has reached out to us. We don’t know what their plans are. We’re trying to get with them to find out how we can work together. They haven’t responded to calls.”
Donaldson expressed his concern that Charter would “cherry-pick” the highly-populated areas, and leave the county to cover the less-densely-populated portions of the county, which is less cost effective. “At this point, we just don’t know,” he said.
Director of Weakley County Schools Randy Frazier stated the infrastructure is not currently in place for virtual learning to be implemented countywide, should schools be closed to in-person learning, due to COVID-19 or for some other reason.
Donaldson said recent developments are very disappointing, because, “We were onboard and hoping to start this spring.”
“Our plan as a committee and commission is to keep moving forward,” Donaldson said.