Another Rural Co-op, Another Broadband Project

Holston Electric Cooperative (HEC) in Hamblen and Hawkins County, Tennessee, is about to begin Phase I of its plan to deploy fiber optic connectivity to more than 30,000 members. The multi-year project will bring broadband to the rural area and create smart grid efficiencies for the electric system.

Wide Support for HolstonConnect

There’s been so much interest and so many inquiries about when members can sign-up, General Manager Jimmy Sandlin feels it’s important to ask folks in the service area to be patient and to understand that the build will be a long process. Construction will begin in Rogersville and will extend to South Surgoinsville.

“As HolstonConnect’s services will have less delay times than other products available in your market, the competition may encourage our members to lock themselves into new contracts. Be aware of this tactic, as this is your opportunity to help improve your neighborhood. Owned by the people served, HolstonConnect will connect our community to a great future, just like Holston Electric Cooperative brought rural residents into the future with electricity.”

Prices and a complete list of services have not been posted yet, but the cooperative plans to offer symmetrical gigabit service, voice, and video. In keeping with similar policies from other publicly owned networks, HEC has said there will be no throttling or data caps. 

HEC has had plans in place for a while to deploy a smart grid to improve electric systems. As is the case with many other electric cooperatives, HEC decided to consider taking advantage of the infrastructure’s excess capacity as a foundation for fiber optic connectivity for local residents and businesses. In order to make the venture successful, however, they knew that they would need take rates of around 80 percent from members to make the project viable. The cooperative still needs to determine final estimates, but the initial figure for the entire project comes in at around $120 million.

In early 2017, HEC reached out to members, holding several meetings to gauge interest. Local residents packed the events and the average of pledges to sign up for service averaged around 90 percent of attendees. A survey indicated that 60 percent of those asked would pay up to $75 per month for the service. An estimated 40 percent of HEC members do not have access to broadband in the rural service area.

The demand for the option is high in part because a large swath of people in the region don’t have access to any type of Internet service. In Surgoinsville, the sole landline ISP lost service over Labor Day in 2016 and never repaired the system. There are areas where satellite is not offered and families are seeking connectivity wherever they can find it.  

At one of the 2017 meetings, a Surgoinsville attendee told the Rogersville Review that each night she drives her children to Rogersville where the family sits in fast food restaurants in order to use the Wi-Fi:

“We spent three hours there last evening, just sitting in the parking lot, because that’s the only way my children can get internet to do research for their homework,” she said. “In this day and time, it is ridiculous for anyone to have to do this. It is costly and it is inconvenient. There’s no reason some of these internet companies can’t provide us with better service. That’s why I am here, to show support for Holston Electric. If their service costs $100 or more, I would gladly pay it because I’m probably spending that much or more on gas every month hauling my children all over creation trying to find Wi-Fi!”

Subsidiary to Serve

logo-hec.png The co-op Board took locals’ comments to heart and in February announced that they were establishing HolstonConnect, a subsidiary of the cooperative, to offer high-quality Internet access. They aim to offer gigabit connectivity to all members within the co-op service area within three to five years. By taking a steady but slower approach, HEC hopes to take advantage of grants becoming available from federal, state, and regional sources. The HEC service area covers approximately 525 square miles at approximately 11 premises per mile of line. 

HEC serves a large rural area between Kingsport and Morristown in eastern Tennessee. We’ve covered many of the innovations and successes from Morristown's FiberNet, including their partnership with nearby Newport Utilities to help Newport establish a municipal network. In Tennessee, state law prohibits cities and towns from offering retail services beyond their electric service area, which leaves many rural towns, businesses, and residents without access to anything other than satellite Internet access, DSL, or even antiquated dial-up Interrnet service. Cooperatives that provide electricity in these areas are increasingly making investments to serve members with fiber optic connectivity. Learn more about the role of cooperatives in bringing broadband to rural America on our Rural Cooperatives page.

As HEC begins work on the first phase of the project, contractors will be conducting field work that will permit detailed engineering and design for the network.

“One of the most important components of the cooperative principals is concern for the community, and these services will improve the quality of life for our membership,” stated General Manager Jimmy Sandlin.