Two internet service providers are asking for help from the community as they prepare grant applications to expand service in Cumberland County.
Ben Lomand Connect and Bledsoe Telephone Cooperative ask residents of areas they are considering for grant applications to complete short surveys regarding their current internet service.
BTC hopes to complete a fiber optic expansion in the southern part of Cumberland County, including the communities of Vandever and Breckenridge. The survey is available online at btcfiber.com.
Ben Lomand Connect applies for grants in large parts of the county which include areas in the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th Civil Districts. People living in these neighborhoods were invited to complete the survey at www.benlomandconnect.com/broadband-survey. Letters of support for the grant application can be mailed to [email protected]
The companies ask residents to use their home Internet connection when testing the current speed of service.
“Grant support is critical to this project, and community support is an important part of the grant application,” Cumberland County Mayor Allen Foster said in a recent press release. “Make sure you answer these surveys even if you have done so in the past.”
Tennessee has earmarked $400 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to support the expansion of high-speed internet in the state. Subsidies are offered to providers to extend service to underserved areas.
State subsidies include a counterpart from suppliers – up to 30% of the cost. The Cumberland County Commission voted in January to dedicate up to $3 million of its $11.74 million in ARP funds to support broadband expansion. Suppliers who have obtained grants for Cumberland County projects can apply for 10% to 20% of county funding requirements.
County support can bolster a grant application, Foster told county commission members in January. Additionally, the county would have additional assurance that the project meets federal requirements for the use of ARP money if the project was approved by the state.
Residents across the county are struggling to access reliable, high-speed internet service. Foster said that was the main concern he heard about when he ran for office in 2018.
These complaints led to a countywide investigation to assess Internet access and challenge maps used by the Federal Communications Commission. These maps had used information provided by internet service companies and were based on census blocks. If a provider reported that a customer in a census block was receiving high-speed Internet service – defined as a download speed of 25 megabytes per second and an upload speed of 3 megabytes per second – then the FCC took into account the area served.
Residents provided their internet speed data to Foster as part of a 2019 survey. Findings showed large parts of the county lacked high-speed internet access and helped providers challenge maps of the FCC when applying for grants.
The companies have since successfully completed grant programs, with six grants awarded for internet service expansion in Cumberland County since February 2020:
• February 2020, $2.2 million USDA Reconnect Grant to Ben Lomand to serve 222 homes in approximately 100 square miles in the Smith Mountain, Millstone Mountain and Long Rockhouse Branch areas near Crab Orchard and north of Fairfield Glade on the west to No Business Creek and Clear Creek
• April 2020, Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development $2 million grant to Ben Lomand to serve approximately 1,500 locations on the highway. 127 No. area
• October 2020, $1.9 million USDA Reconnect Grant to Ben Lomand to serve 84 addresses and approximately 25 square miles in the southwestern part of the county
• December 2020, $3.3 million grant under the CARES Act to Volunteer Energy Cooperative and Twin Lakes to expand service in the Cumberland Cove area
• February 2021, $4.8 million Rural Digital Opportunity Fund grant to Charter Communications to expand service to approximately 6,000 additional homes in the county. New service areas represent approximately 20% of all households in the county
• March 2021, $1.9 million Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development grant to Ben Lomand to expand service to 1,125 locations in the county
Grant applications for state funding are due in March, with awards tentatively announced in early summer 2022.
“Remember, just because your location isn’t in one of these areas doesn’t mean you’re out of luck,” Foster added. “Other providers are also looking for grants. I will keep you posted as new information becomes available.