Rural areas could have broadband in five years, even without taxpayer involvement

Rural areas could have broadband in five years, even without taxpayer involvement

Humphreys County Executive Jessie Wallace says large portions of his county lack broadband access, and he wants to deliver it for them, even if that means involving taxpayers.

The county’s public utility — unlike Chattanooga’s Electric Power Board or Tullahoma’s LightTube — doesn’t offer municipal broadband.

As reported, EPB took $111 million in federal stimulus money to build a smart grid to offer municipal broadband and compete against private providers such as AT&T and Comcast.

The Tennessee General Assembly could do away with a state law forbidding EPB and LightTube from expanding outside their municipal boundaries.

Jessie Wallace (photo courtesy of Humphreys County's official website)

Jessie Wallace (photo courtesy of Humphreys County’s official website)

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But it probably wouldn’t make much difference. Humphreys County is too far from both Chattanooga and Tullahoma.

Most of the people in Humphreys County who lack broadband live in rural areas outside the cities of McEwan, Waverly and New Johnsonville.

In five to 10 years, Wallace told Tennessee Watchdog, rural areas that want broadband would probably have it, thanks to new wireless technology.

Yet he thinks he still may want municipal broadband.

“Without knowing the details I couldn’t commit, but I can tell you that given our county’s need in terms of quality of life for our citizens,” Wallace said.

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“The one thing we are in most need of is universal broadband service. So, yes, to the extent that the taxpayers could stand the burden.”

County Commissioner Tim Daniel says as much as 80 percent of the county is without broadband.

County Commissioner John Hunt, meanwhile, says the county “needs it bad, bad, bad.”

“AT&T is all we’ve got, but they don’t worry about people like me out here in the boonies. I live in the north part of the county, about 12 miles out of Waverly. In the hollers and hills out here, nobody will carry it,” Hunt said.

“Humphreys County will never invest in municipal broadband. We want the private providers to come in there and furnish it to us.”

The county economy is in decent shape.

John Hunt (photo courtesy of Humphreys County's official website)

John Hunt (photo courtesy of Humphreys County’s official website)

Interstate 40 passes through the county, which gets a lot of tourists because of Kentucky Lake, the Tennessee, Duck and Buffalo rivers and the Loretta Lynn Ranch.

DuPont employs 600 people, and a Tennessee Valley Authority plant has 200 workers. The county also has a paper mill, Hunt said.

According to Wallace, the county’s unemployment rate is 5 percent, but people in rural areas need broadband to work from home, thus easing traffic congestion and helping with child care, Wallace said.

Tennessee Watchdog asked Wallace whether any of his constituents made a point to tell him they need broadband to work from home, which is known as telecommuting.

“I don’t know that I’ve had anyone come to me directly and made a statement like that, but I know it to be a fact,” Wallace said.

As reported, a Public Policy Institute of California study shows government investment in broadband has limited benefits in terms of an area’s employment numbers or the number of people who telecommute.

The CEO of a Jackson-based Internet Service Provider said a majority of people go online for entertainment purposes, for things such as YouTube and Netflix.

Tim Daniel (photo courtesy of Humphreys County's official website)

Tim Daniel (photo courtesy of Humphreys County’s official website)

Jonathan Harlan, CEO of Aeneas Internet & Telephone Services, said branching out into rural areas is expensive for an ISP, but, in the coming decade, less-expensive solutions such as wireless technology will become available through the free market.

Wallace, who worked in the telecommunications industry for 38 years, said wireless technology “is cheaper in the long run.”

“The only problem is with reliability, and we are challenged in Middle Tennessee by the typography,” Wallace said.

“There are up and down hills, and that is not good for wireless transmission.”

Private Internet Service Providers can’t afford to venture into rural, underserved areas because pole attachment fees in Tennessee cost three times the national average, a Comcast spokesman said earlier this year.

Contact Christopher Butler at chris@tennesseewatchdog.org 

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