Expanding internet access in Bradley County could be costly and take time, but plans are being made by multiple providers to increase availability, access and affordability for residents.
The Bradley County Commission's Broadband Initiative Ad Hoc Committee held its inaugural meeting Tuesday, bringing together public and private entities and individuals to discuss options.
Committee Chairperson Erica Davis welcomed the committee members.
"We know that broadband is a hot topic here in Bradley County," Davis said, adding she is excited to bring this group together.
Committee members are Davis, County Commission Vice Chairman Thomas Crye; Lindsay Hathcock, representing the Bradley County Mayor's Office; Aaron Hood and David Murphy with Volunteer Energy Cooperative; Jeremy Jarvis with Corptek I.T. Solutions; Bradley County resident Tom Matthews; Nick Pavlis with Charter Communications; and Scott Webb with Bradley County Schools.
Davis said broadband is a personal issue for her because she lives in rural southeast Bradley County and her only internet option is satellite service. It is also a struggle to have affordable service, she said.
"I'm excited to have this conversation with you guys today," Davis said.
Opening the meeting, Davis reviewed the committee's goals:
• Educate the public on advancements;
• Alert the public of new information and opportunities;
• Include public officials in the discussion;
• Identify real-time action steps to advance objectives; and
• Lobby state and local officials.
Davis said she does not want to focus on how long it will take to get broadband service to the county's rural areas.
"I want the discussions to be positive," she said.
Davis invited committee members to share information about their organizations.
Nick Pavlis, state director of Government Affairs at Charter Communications, said Charter is working to offer residential Gigabit (Gbps) service this year. The minimum speed will be 200 megabits, but could increase to 300, he said.
Pavlis said Charter is the primary distributor in this region, and is interested in expanding service "where it makes sense from a financial standpoint." By the end of 2020, Charter plans to launch a fixed wireless solution that is a "great alternative" to satellite. He added Charter is continually building out service.
"In the very rural areas it's a challenge," Pavlis said.
Davis asked if there is a specific area for the fixed wireless solution.
"I think it makes the most sense in southeast Bradley County," Pavlis said, adding Charter is working to identify those areas.
Davis asked about the price point for the fixed wireless solution that Charter is proposing. Pavlis said that information is not available yet.
Jeremy Jarvis, owner of Corptek I.T. Solutions, said his company builds networks and can go nine miles point-to-point through wireless. He said in the western states, towers go up to direct wireless signal through repeaters over long distances.
"What can be done is pretty unique," Jarvis said.
Tom Matthews, a Bradley County resident and member of Southeast Tennessee Citizens for Fiber Internet, asked Pavlis what is considered high-speed internet.
Pavlis said the FCC considers 25 or more MB as high speed.
Matthews said he gets 25 MB "on a nice day" from his provider, American Internet & Communications Inc.
Jarvis said download speed is dependent on the service provider, as well as the drain from other users accessing the same bandwidth.
Matthews said he understands that with his provider, the more users there are at one time, the slower the download speed becomes.
David Murphy, vice president of Marketing and Economic Development for Volunteer Energy Cooperative, said VEC started offering fiber service in 2017, but started working on it before then, partnering with Twin Lakes Telephone Cooperative Corporation. Murphy said VEC maintains the network and Twin Lakes provides the service.
Twin Lakes powered by VEC fiber has 616 customers in northern Bradley County, but Murphy said there no plans to expand to other areas at this time.
"We are not interested in competing with Charter and AT&T," Murphy said.
Murphy also noted VEC recently received two grants: a broadband grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission for the Birchwood area, and a state grant for the Spring Creek area in McMinn County. He said about 865 more homes will be served in McMinn County.
Both projects are currently under construction, Murphy said. The Birchwood project started in September, and the McMinn County project started in October.
Davis said last year the Bradley County Commission took required steps to have Bradley County designated as a Broadband Ready Community, at VEC's suggestion.
Murphy said the state has a scoring process for grants with point values for different areas, like points for being broadband-ready. He recalled that VEC submitted several grant applications and Bradley County did not receive a grant last year.
Beyond broadband readiness, Murphy said partnerships with governmental entities also earn points in the grant application process. For example, McMinn County officials gave $107,000 of in-kind funding, which helped boost the Spring Creek grant application.
Murphy said VEC met last week with Meigs County officials to discuss a partnership.
"It think it really helps whenever a county is willing to give some money," Murphy said, adding VEC is planning a $4.7 million total project in Meigs County, and the Meigs County Commission approved $10,000 in funding.
Murphy said it is not so much about the money, but about showing cooperation and partnership with VEC.
"They just want to see the partnership," he said.
Davis asked when the next grant cycle will be. Murphy said the cycle is every fall, and the next applications are due Nov. 20. He said grants have been applied for in Cumberland County, Meigs County and Roane County.
Murphy said he is glad to make a presentation to the county commission ahead of next year's grant cycle.
Sreedhar Upendram, assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, attended the committee meeting. He said he has data he can share with the committee; he also plans to attend an Appalachian Regional Commission meeting in January, and can share information from that meeting, as well.
Scott Webb, instructional technology coordinator for Bradley County Schools, spoke about internet availability for students. When he took the job three years ago, the school system had a 1 Gbps connection for the system's local area network (LAN) and its schools.
Webb said they have built out a 10 Gbps LAN and 5 Gbps internet access with option to expand over time as prices come down.
Davis said internet is available in county schools, but not necessarily when students go home.
Webb agreed access to reliable home internet is an issue. He said last year the school system did not buy any non-digital content for instruction, which is fine at school but not accessible for students at home.
"They're going to have to have the ability to be on something reliable on a daily basis," Webb said.
Matthews asked if that means some students have an advantage over other students, because of internet availability.
Webb said that could be said, noting there are issues with lack of devices and internet accessibility.
Davis said internet service affordability also factors into the discussion.
Webb said Bradley County Schools recently completed a survey with UTK.
"I'm real anxious to see what the results are," he said.
Jarvis noted they need to get decision-makers to see that internet availability is an issue.
Matthews said Southeast Tennessee Citizens for Fiber Internet started in 2013, in an effort to get Chattanooga's EPB to expand into Bradley County. He said group members have urged state legislators to help with this effort. Matthews also encouraged local residents to express their interest in expanded broadband service offered by VEC.
Matthews said he thinks the committee should recognize cost is the major obstacle to bring broadband to rural residents, and look at ways to incentivize broadband build-out, like grants.
Davis said she would like the committee to meet quarterly, with the next meeting to look at possible solutions based on the survey data. She also asked for an update on fixed wireless solutions at the next meeting. Davis asked VEC to make a presentation to the county commission on grant possibilities.