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Rural Tennesseans excited about $14.8 million broadband service expansion

Kristy McDonald, a secretary at E.K. Baker Elementary School in McMinn County, says students have access to the internet while at school, but that is not the case when they go home.

Seventeen Tennessee counties are getting broadband services, thanks to a $14.8 million grant signed by Governor Bill Lee.

Five of those counties are in our neck of East Tennessee, including Rhea, McMinn, Monroe, Grainger and Jefferson counties. The funding would go to companies like the Appalachian Electric Cooperative, TDS Telecom and the Volunteer Energy Cooperative to develop broadband infrastructure over a two-year period. 

Kristy McDonald, a secretary at E.K. Baker Elementary School in McMinn County, says students have access to the internet while at school, but that is not the case when they go home.
“Everyone who lives further away from the school don’t have internet at all,” she explained. “We have parents call all the time. We have online surveys and stuff they can do online and they don't have access to do that stuff online. They have to either go to the library or a friend’s house or somewhere.”

McDonald says she faces the same struggle at home with her 17-year-old son. They drive to the elementary school at least once a week for internet access.

“If I didn't have the access to come here we would just be stuck. We would have to do without. We always have had dial up until a few years ago we got to bump up to the lowest high-speed but still when it rains the internet goes off. We can't do two things at once,” she said.

But that will soon be a thing of the past. McDonald's home is one of 862 that will soon have access to 10 gigabit's of broadband fiber services, according to Volunteer Energy Cooperative. A spokesperson says a $1.3 million matching grant will provide the service to homes of Spring Creek off Highway 30. Roughly 107 miles of fiber optic cables will be installed to make it happen.

“This will definitely be a big help to the community,” said McDonald.

Contractors will begin construction in McMinn late this summer/early fall.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, who's long championed for rural broadband access, spoke at a Rotary Club meeting in downtown Knoxville Tuesday afternoon about it. She said getting people connected helps communities and people in many areas.

"Mayors, county mayors tell me their number one infrastructure issue is having access to high speed internet, because you cannot have economic development, health care, or 21st century education without it," she said.

VEC says they can only provide broadband access to areas within their service area. Once everything gets started in Spring Creek, broadband service will expand into surrounding areas.

On Facebook, VEC responded to residents regarding lack of service in nearby areas:

"VEC has applied for grant funding on behalf of Meigs County several times, and as a result Birchwood qualified for a $1M grant last October. Unfortunately, that is the only area of Meigs that has been approved so far. We will continue applying for grants on behalf of Meigs, but it is a very competitive process, and it may take some time before any additional money is finally awarded. We only ask for your patience. the state has strict requirements governing who may receive grant funding. The principle limitation is there must not be any other service providers in the proposed grant area. They use the FCC maps to make this determination. While much of the area surrounding Spring City is without service, there are other providers in the city that make it more difficult to qualify for funding in that area. There is some good news however. BTC Communications qualified for a $700k grant, which they will be using to provide service to the Walden Ridge community in Rhea County. The closer a service provider gets to your area, the easier it will be to extend the service until it finally reaches your home."

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