BY DAVID FISHER
DRESDEN (May 2) — On Monday, May 2, members of the Weakley County Fiber Research Committee met at the School Department Conference Room to discuss recent developments regarding the installation of high-speed broadband internet service countywide.
The committee quizzed West Kentucky and Tennessee Telecommunications Cooperative CEO Trevor Bonnstetter and WK&T Operations Manager Stacey Riley about the status of the various phases of the project.
- Phase I – Involves installing approximately 138 miles of fiber cable, along mostly rural highways, which will provide service to an estimated 1,383 customers.
According to Bonnstetter and Riley, Phase I includes fiber internet installation in the Sharon and Sidonia areas, as well as a subdivision on Greenfield Highway 54, and Adams Road residences. They noted the engineering and installation are completed, as far as the dark fiber is concerned. Dark fiber is unused optical fiber that has been laid but is not currently being used in fiber-optic communications. Because fiber-optic cable transmits information in the form of light pulses, a “dark” cable refers to one through which light pulses are not being transmitted.
Residents in these areas are now eligible to sign up for service with WK&T.
The project, costing $6 million, is funded from three sources – an Economic and Community Development grant from the State of Tennessee, WK&T, and Weakley County Government, with each contributing $2 million.
Commissioner Roger Donaldson stated, now that Phase I is completed, these residents are signing up for high-speed internet. “It covers a large, but not highly populated area,” Donaldson said.
- Phase II – The installation of dark fiber in the Jewel Store Road and Palmersville areas, as well as portions of Latham along Hwy 190, is almost completed. If all goes according to plan, residents in the vicinity of Jewel Store Road should be able to sign up for internet service with WK&T by the end of May, and those in the Palmersville area should have access to the internet within two months. The $6 million project is funded by a $2 million ECD grant provided by the State of Tennessee, $2 million provided by WK&T, and $2 million from Weakley County Government.
Commissioner Donaldson said, “Due to supply chain issues, people need to sign up quick.”
- Phase III – The installation of high-speed internet service in the Pillowville area, between Greenfield and McKenzie, will be paid for by a $3.3 million federal grant that provides 100 percent funding and requires no local dollars. The project is currently in the engineering phase and could take up to three years to complete. So far, no money has been received for Phase III.
- Phase IV – This project, which has not yet been awarded, would provide high-speed internet to 2,250 households, located in areas eligible for state grant funding throughout the county. This includes locations not covered in Phase I, Phase II or Phase III. A map showing where these areas are located is not available, because the project is still in the design phase. The $17.6 million project would be funded by $2.5 million from WK&T, $2.5 million provided by Weakley County Government, and the remaining costs by an ECD grant from the State of Tennessee.
WK&T and Charter Broadband Services
The difference in internet speeds available from WK&T and Charter were mentioned during the discussion.
WK&T, which is a co-op headquartered in Mayfield, Kentucky, provides advanced broadband, voice, video and security services to thousands of residential and business subscribers in Kentucky and Tennessee.
It was noted that WK&T provides its customers with a top internet speed of at least 1 gigabyte per second (gbps), but most customers only use around 100 megabytes per second (mbps).
Charter Communications, Inc., with corporate headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut, is a telecommunications and mass media company, with services branded as Spectrum. The firm lists approximately 1,300 households to be added to its internet service in Weakley County.
Charter offers its customers a download speed up to 100 mbps and an upload speed of 20 mbps. However, Commissioner Donaldson stated it is his understanding that Charter plans on providing internet speeds similar to WK&T for its new service.
Fiber Research Committee members complained about Charter’s failure to have a representative attend meetings, and the company’s lack of response to inquiries, as being a constant cause of frustration.
Weakley County Mayor Bynum said, “The problem is there are some providers saying they are providing service in an area, but they’re not; and there is no federal mechanism to challenge that.”
Countywide Broadband Service
“We’re very excited about the work that we’ve accomplished,” Weakley County Mayor Jake Bynum said. “There is still work to be done. We know, even at the end of Phase IV, not everybody in the rural areas will have service. That is something we are continually working towards. But, we do think that we’ve accomplished a lot of good work, primarily, because we were given substantial federal funding in order to expand broadband in the county.”
Director of Weakley County Schools Randy Frazier has previously stated the infrastructure is not currently in place for virtual learning to be implemented countywide, should schools be closed again to in-person learning, due to COVID-19 or for some other reason.
The goal of the countywide broadband high-speed internet project is to make sure that education, health care, economic development, and quality of life in rural areas, will no longer be negatively impacted by the lack of fiber infrastructure.
This effort was assisted earlier this year, when the Tennessee Legislature approved a $68 million sales tax reduction on broadband supplies, in order to incentivize companies to accelerate the deployment of much-needed broadband services to rural communities.