In a lengthy afternoon meeting on Monday, the Rhea County Commission heard from three of the four companies vying to get the county's business in an attempt to provide broadband access to every house in Rhea County.
But most conspicuous was the absence of County Executive George Thacker at the meeting.
According to reports, he has not been seen since the announcement of his intention to enter a guilty plea on charges of wire fraud in Federal Court.
Walter Hooper, owner of Spring City Cable, started out on the discussion presenting his firm's plan for a grant application.
“We never know from week to week how this is going to work. We get to where we are close, the state of Tennesse moves the goal posts,” he said.
Mr. Hooper laid out their plan of wanting to provide serves to the entire north half of the county “from Clear Creek north to the county line. We are applying for $2.74 million through the state on a grant that would be 70 percent from the state, 10 percent from Rhea County and the remaining costs being paid for by Spring City Cable.”
Mr. Hooper pointed out that the state is having to deal with the census blocks showing broadband service are well out of date.
“The state is having to deal with these maps showing that even though a location is showing they have service or covered when they are not. These census blocks they are using are in some cases two years old, said Mr. Hooper.
Matt Boyington with Bledsoe Telephone Cooperative agreed about the inaccuracy of census blocks.
“We just finished doing a project along the top of Dayton Mountain where it showed that Laurelbrook Nursing Home was serviced by EPB Fiber optics. It was showing this even when they were not being serviced because the EPB line terminates at the foot of the mountain and does not come up to Laurelbrook.,” he said.
“There are a couple blocks on Morgan Springs Road we had to skip because even though they were showing the were eligible, ATT came in and said they could provide the service."
Mr. Boyington said that to qualify for the grant areas have to show that they are in sections where download speeds are less that 10 mb per second and upload is 1 mb per second. He further said that they are in the process of changing this to 100 mb download and 20 mb upload to be the basic standard.
Both companies stated to the commissioners that they are applying for some of the $400 million of available state money.
Mr. Boyington added that they along with Volunteer Electric Cooperative (VEC) are seeing the challenges of “climbing the mountain.”
He concluded by saying that BTC Fiber was seeking $1.3 million to finish the rest of Walden's Ridge and run along the top of the mountain all the way to Shut-In Gap.
“This is just 188 houses spread out over 26.35 miles” said Mr. Boyington.
Commission Chairman Jim Vincent said that he just wanted to see all of the citizens treated equally and fairly. He said he wanted to get broadband provided to all the citizens just like water and electricity.
Zachary Bates with Charter/Spectrum said that his company already has money through the federal government to do a lot of the work. He said, "We are investing hundreds of millions in private capital in Tennessee, combined with more than $90 million awarded by the FCC Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), which will deliver broadband to approximately 70,000 locations in Tennessee, according to the FCC, including more than 3,000 homes and businesses."
Mr. Bates added, “These other companies are applying for grants that they may or may not get. We are ready to build now. We will have a 51/49 split with Rhea County to provide service to all of the county.”
Earlier in the meeting during comments from the public, Ryan Davis told commissioners that he lives on Garrison Road and he has asked Charter/Spectrum about installing at his house, but they “at first said it would run $25,000 to provide service and now they said they can't even entertain doing this. I have contacted Senator Yager's office and have all the emails and correspondence between myself and Charter.” Mr. Davis said he was never able to talk directly with Charter/Spectrum, but only through Senator Yager's office.
Commissioner Bill Hollin said, "Before we sign anything we need to make sure that everyone in the county will be able to get service."
Commissioner Leo Stephens echoed the same thoughts, adding that "we need make sure no one is left out."
After much discussion between the commissioners, the decision was made to wait on a map from the state showing the unserved areas of the county.
Even though it's not on the agenda for the meeting Tuesday night, Chairmen Vincent said some discussion could be entertained if needed.
"We really need to move on this and make a decision on this soon, said Chairman Vincent.