County Looking to Expand High-Speed Internet Access
BY DAVID FISHER
As the October 20, 2022 meeting of the Weakley County Fiber Research Committee got underway, the top item for discussion involved the installation of high-speed internet service to homes and businesses across the rural, unserved and underserved portions of the county, which are located in geographic areas that have qualified for grant funding.
The U.S. Department of the Treasury has defined “unserved areas” as lacking access to a wireless connection capable of minimum speeds of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload. However, due to the increasing demands of the digital age, any connection that provides lower than 100 Mbps download speed and 20 Mbps upload speed is now deemed “unserved.” In consideration of this new definition, application priority was still given to those with the lowest internet speeds, but all applications under this new definition of “unserved” were considered.
Expanding Internet Coverage
Commissioner David Bell stated he has been swamped with calls from residents that cannot get access to high-speed internet service, even though their neighbors across the street have fiber cable hooked up inside their homes. Bell noted he has also received complaints from those with residencies located just outside the city limits of local municipalities that are situated next to homes with fiber internet service.
County Mayor Jake Bynum said the question the committee is grappling with is, “How do we most effectively and efficiently obtain high-speed internet service for the citizens that are right outside those areas where we have already received grant funding for fiber hookups?”
According to Mayor Bynum, Weakley County currently has funding available for Phase I, Phase II and Phase III. He said, if a portion of these funds is used to install fiber internet cable for those residences across the road from homes that have service, there would have to be a plan to replace those funds, which are earmarked for existing projects.
“We know what our obligations are at this point, but it’s the new, potential obligations that we don’t have funding for,” the mayor said. “We can use some of this existing funding, but then, we have to figure out on the back-end how we’re going to meet the rest of that remaining obligation.”
Mayor Bynum stated the goal of Weakley County Government is to provide high-speed internet service to all of its citizens, even those in the most remote areas. “But, we’re going to have to wait and see what other grant opportunities become available in the future,” he said.
Status of Phases I-III
According to West Kentucky and Tennessee Telecommunications Cooperative CEO Trevor Bonnstetter and Operations Manager Stacey Riley, the status of Phases I, II and III are as follows:
*Phase I is complete. It involved installing approximately 138 miles of fiber cable along mostly rural highways. Over 500 residences are hooked up, so far, and it will provide service to an estimated 1,383 customers, when completed.
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. This represents a large, but sparsely populated area.
The engineering and installation are completed and these residents are signing up for high-speed internet 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.
Mayor Bynum explained Weakley County has paid out $500,000 of the $2 million it has in the budget for its portion of the cost for the project, and still owes WK&T $1.5 million. The contract agreement between Weakley County and WK&T is being rewritten to take into account the proper disbursement of grant funding and pay WK&T the $1.5 million it is owed for completing Phase I.
*Phase II – The installation of fiber cable is almost completed in the Jewel Store Road and Palmersville areas, as well as portions of Latham along Hwy 190.
Riley stated approximately 150 residents in the vicinity of Jewel Store Road are already hooked up. He noted the construction work is completed in the Palmersville area; system testing is underway; and WK&T customers should have access to the internet within 30 days. He added that grant funding for internet service is available until April of 2023.
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.
Once the revised contract agreement in completed and signed, Weakley County will pay WK&T its portion of the cost, which amounts to $2 million.
Commissioner Roger Donaldson stressed the county’s $2 million comes from an ARA federal grant – not out of the local taxpayer’s pockets. “This is money they told us we could spend on broadband, water or sewer projects,” Donaldson said. “But, since the County doesn’t provide water or sewer services, we opted to use it for broadband. We had to spend it on broadband or send it back.”
According to Commissioner Bell, downtown Palmersville and Latham are not covered in the grant, because the state says these areas are already being served by another internet provider.
The project involves the installation of approximately 70 miles of fiber and provides internet service to over 400 customers. Approximately 20 percent of the funding includes residences in Carroll County.
*Phase III – WK&T has been awarded a $12.3 million grant from the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development under its Tennessee Emergency Broadband Fund – American Rescue Plan, for the purpose of expanding fiber broadband internet service in Weakley County.
Weakley County is providing an additional $5.3 million, making the grand total $17.6 million invested in this project alone.
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.
“Phase III is huge,” Bell said. The project involves the installation of high-speed internet service in the Pillowville area, between Greenfield and McKenzie, which will be paid for by a federal grant that provides 100 percent funding and requires no local dollars. So far, no money has been received for Phase III.
The project is currently in the engineering stage and could take up to three years to complete. The grant is estimated to fund 358 miles of buried fiber optic cables benefiting more than 2,250 residential locations. Engineering has begun, but WK&T is waiting on the final paperwork from the State.
About 90 percent of the construction work has been completed so far.
One of the USDA grants provided funding for installing broadband fiber in the Dukedom area, and the other was in the Pillowville Community.
Areas of Weakley County to be covered by Phase III (the broadband grant announced Thursday, September 22) are yet to be determined.
Bonnstetter stated residents need to contact WK&T to let them know if they want internet service, so they won’t get passed by when fiber is being installed along their road.
For more information, contact WK&T at 1-877-954-8748.
Internet Maps vs. Individual Listing
WK&T CEO Trevor Bonnstetter stated it appears efforts are underway to replace the existing method of using maps of geographic locations indicating areas without or inadequate broadband service with a listing of individual addresses in need of high-speed fiber internet.
“These are state grants, and the State of Tennessee decides what these grants will look like,” Commissioner Bell said.
In other business, members elected the following officers: Commissioner David Bell – chairman; County Mayor Jake Bynum – vice chairman; and Lauren Rush – recording secretary.
Additionally, Commissioner Roger Donaldson invited other commissioners present to serve on the Weakley County Fiber Research Committee, which he noted is strictly a voluntary committee, and offer any input they might have.