In late August, the broadband subsidiary of Tri-County Electric Membership Corporation received an emergency grant from the state of Tennessee to connect students in need of internet access for online learning. The $330,000 grant to Tri-County Fiber Communications brings the total amount of grants received for the cooperative’s fiber-to-the-home broadband project to $2.2 million, which is approximately 28 percent of the estimated $7.8 million cost.
“Governor Bill Lee authorized the emergency grant funding to assist rural communities with their COVID response,” Tri-County Electric Executive Vice President and General Manager Paul Thompson said. “Trousdale County’s school system planned for a hybrid schedule with online classes two days per week. We requested funding to provide internet connectivity for those students who did not have access to allow them to participate in the virtual classroom.”
The grant covers installation and free 50/50 Mbps broadband service for 12 months for 130 students, in addition to five public Wi-Fi hotspots.
Emergency Grants Support Broadband Expansion, With a Catch
The grant was awarded through the Tennessee Emergency Broadband Fund (TEBF), created using stimulus funds allocated to the state through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
All work for the TEBF grant must be completed by December 15. “We are working on the project simultaneously with our regular fiber build-out,” Thompson said.
Tri-County Electric launched its broadband project soon after passage of the Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act of 2017, which removed a restriction that had prevented electric cooperatives from providing retail broadband service in the state.
“In the 1930s, rural electric cooperatives provided electricity to the areas investor-owned utilities were unwilling to serve,” Thompson said. “Today, we are uniquely positioned to once again provide a critically needed service. Our commitment to the rural communities we serve will truly improve the quality of life in rural America.”
According to the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association, 13 of 23 electric cooperatives in the state are now building broadband networks, investing more than $1.2 billion to expand connectivity in unserved and underserved areas of rural and suburban Tennessee.
In addition to the latest grant, Tri-County Fiber also received a $1.35 million broadband accessibility grant from the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development in 2018, as well as a $502,000 grant in April 2020.
CFC has provided consulting and financial support for the project. “CFC has provided extensive consultation regarding our business plan and increased our line of credit to assist with our fiber deployment,” Thompson added.
Tri-County Fiber’s Network is Nearly Complete
Tri-County Fiber’s distribution network is now nearing completion, with approximately 556 miles of fiber in operation and more than 1,500 customers actively using the system or awaiting installation. Network construction is expected to be completed later this year.
The response from members has been extremely positive, Thompson said. “Broadband allows our member-owners to work from home, participate in telemedicine and take advantage of online educational opportunities. High-speed connectivity also supports economic development, allowing businesses and industry in our service area to compete globally.”
Although the 2017 law prevents electric cooperatives from offering broadband service outside of their service areas, or within the territory of an existing rural telephone cooperative, that hasn’t stopped Tri-County Fiber from planning network upgrades.
“New customer growth, take rate and technology advancements will be the major success factors that influence local upgrades to our fiber network,” Thompson said. “It will be critical to monitor capacity and performance across our system to ensure quality of service. As more customers work and educate from home, utilize streaming video, practice telemedicine and enjoy other evolving online services, we must be prepared to upgrade and expand.”
Fiber Infrastructure Connects Tri-County Electric’s Offices and Substations
The fiber infrastructure also supports the electric side of the business, with Tri-County Fiber providing all telecommunications services to Tri-County Electric’s eight offices and 18 substations.
“Today’s electric cooperatives need fiber connectivity to communicate with outage management software, automated meters and smart switches,” Thompson said. “The deployment of fiber to meet our business needs has local power companies positioned to meet the demand for broadband in rural America.”
“It’s extremely rewarding to deliver a critically needed service to rural communities that investor-owned utilities refuse to serve due to the lack of profitability,” he concluded. “We often discuss internally how our situation today must be similar to how our founders felt when they first brought electricity to our rural area.”