Chattanooga developer John "Thunder' Thornton said he has found a way "to deal with a glaring absence of reliable broadband Internet service throughout the many rural areas of Tennessee." At Jasper Highlands - a residential mountaintop community at Kimball, he set up his own Internet service provider.
He said he has successfully launched gigabit-speed Internet service for Jasper Highlands residents by setting up Hi-Tech Data LLC.
Mr. Thornton said he was successful by going just across state lines to work and connect with North Alabama Electric Cooperative, along with assistance from Tennessee-based Sequachee Valley Electric Cooperative, and eventually bringing “the Gig” up 2,000 feet in elevation to Jasper Highlands’ mountaintop residents.
Mr. Thornton said, “Over the past few years, I’ve had very little confidence in the majority of our state legislators supporting rural broadband expansion which, in essence, is stifling our children in getting a quality education and creating an unfair disadvantage for existing business growth along with our overall economic development efforts.
“From day one, we knew how critical of a priority it was for Jasper Highlands’ residents to have access to Internet to be able to keep up with the demands of modern day living. Today’s Internet is not a luxury, it is a critical necessity, and, regardless of whether my development has it or not, I am completely committed to doing whatever I can so that every rural area in this state eventually gets the service.”
Mr. Thornton and his team at Thunder Enterprises, developers of homes and master-planned communities across the country, worked closely with North Alabama Electrical Cooperative (NAEC) and connected with their service five miles away at the Alabama-Tennessee state line. Alabama is currently one of only 31 states whose legislation does not restrict municipal broadband expansion. Dark fiber is being leased from Sequachee Valley Electric Cooperative (SVEC) who has built an extensive fiber backbone across their service territory.
“Recognizing that regional economic development support is a win-win for everyone, we were more than eager to help Jasper Highlands with their connectivity,” said Bruce Purdy CEO of NAEC. “We would welcome the opportunity to work with more partners in bordering states. Fiber is the future.”
As part of the network, Mr. Thornton created Hi-Tech Data as a privately-owned commercial Internet service provider for the Jasper Highlands community. The project has taken more than a year’s time and cost just under $500,000. He said that was "merely a fraction of the $1.3 million originally quoted by AT&T for the undertaking."
“I recently moved to Jasper Highlands from Florida and made a substantial investment in the development and Marion County by being a homeowner,” said Michael Cunningham, a newer resident of Jasper Highlands. “John Thornton completely understood the critical necessity of gigabit Internet service and had the fortitude to get it here. Without the high speed service, which allows me to work remotely from my corporate headquarters in Bellevue, Wash., it would not have been possible for me to make the move.”
Also instrumental in bringing broadband to Jasper Highlands was State Senator Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, who "supported and advised Thornton when he first encountered roadblocks to broadband expansion into the area."
Senator Bowling said, “John has been such a champion and tremendous statewide supporter for rural broadband. I am extremely pleased that he has been able to accomplish this and I also want to thank North Alabama Electrical Cooperative for their efforts. Rest assured we are not done in moving this forward and I hope my fellow legislators will see this as another example of why every rural area in Tennessee must have fiber for their future.”
Monthly rates for Hi-Tech Data’s services compare in price to EPB, the electricity distribution and telecommunications company owned by the city of Chattanooga, at $69 for 100Mbps and $79 for 1 Gig and include unlimited data.
Mr. Thornton said the new Internet service provider - currently the only provider in the area - supports the future expansion of its services to neighboring residents but also encourages competitors to enter the market in the region where a majority of communities are either un-served or under-served.