Another rural electric cooperative is set to bring high-quality connectivity via fiber optic infrastructure. Volunteer Energy Cooperative (VEC) in Tennessee will be investing in a pilot program in Bradley County by year’s end.
A Learning Process - The Pilot
When it comes to fast, affordable, reliable connectivity via publicly owned Internet infrastructure, Chattanooga is typically the first location on everyone’s lips. Unfortunately, neighboring Bradley County has struggled with chronically poor connectivity. Even though Chattanooga would very much like to expand their reach to serve Bradley County residents and businesses, restrictive state law prevents the city from helping their neighbors.
Last summer, VEC saw an opening when the state legislature changed existing barriers that prevented electric cooperatives from offering broadband access or from applying for state grants to deploy the infrastructure. VEC is currently in the process of preparing grant applications through the state’s economic development commission.
The purpose of the pilot, according to VEC President Rody Blevins, is to determine the level of interest in Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) connectivity in Bradley County. Areas VEC chose for the pilot include homes where there is no service and premises were there are more than one option.
"We are doing that to discover how many would choose our services who have no options as well as those who do have a source for broadband service already available," Blevins said. "That helps us looking at the bigger financial model."
"If we have real low response, that's going to hurt us," he added. "We are not for- profit, so this thing has to pay for itself overtime. If I show my board it will never pay for itself, we can't do it. But, I don't think that's going to be the case."
Blevins told the Cleveland Banner that the cooperative estimates the cost to cover 75 percent of Bradley County would be approximately $40 million. He went on to say that if 50 percent of households in the pilot areas chose to sign up, “we would be in pretty good shape.”
Working With Another Co-op
Basic service in the pilot area will include 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) and faster speeds will be available, including gigabit connections. VEC hasn’t decided yet, but they are considering adding a lower cost 25 Mbps tier. In addition to Internet access, premises in the pilot area will be able to sign up for packages that include video and voice.
VEC is teaming up with Twin Lakes Telephone Cooperative for the pilot project. Twin Lakes offers services in the northern sections of VEC’s service area; Bradley County is located in VEC’s southern service area. The service will be marketed under both cooperatives’ brands. While prices in the pilot area have not been announced, Twin Lakes now advertises symmetrical gigabit access for $99.99 per month and 100 Mbps download/ 25 Mbps upload for $79.99 per month. Twin Lakes also offers several other tiers, the lowest being 4 Mbps / 1 Mbps for $39.99 per month.
The electric cooperative is in the process of contacting the approximately 200 households in the pilot area asking them if they want to be connected when equipment arrives. VEC plans to begin serving participants by December 1st and they anticipate results from the pilot project to be available within six to twelve months. Once they determine the success of the pilot, VEC will decide their next steps.
"Most Realtors now ask, especially in the rural areas, if broadband is available," [Blevins] said. "Ten years ago, you never asked that question."
”We have already had someone working on this for almost a year. These are huge numbers for us."
VEC and Twin Lakes are two more in a long list of rural cooperatives that see the critical nature of high-quality connectivity to their members. As national providers continue to concentrate on densely populated urban areas, rural co-ops are picking up the slack and filling in connecitvity voids like the one in Bradley County.