Aiming to get ahead of a nationwide rush to roll out fiber optic cable for high-speed internet access, Warren Fiscal Court on Monday took action to expedite that rollout in underserved parts of the county.
In a hastily called meeting held via Zoom teleconference, the magistrates voted 6-0 to grant Judge-Executive Mike Buchanon authority to advertise for proposals to construct fiber to those underserved areas.
“We’re trying to cover all of Warren County with affordable and accessible high-speed internet service,” Buchanon said.
That has long been a goal for Buchanon and the magistrates, but the coronavirus pandemic heightened the urgency and led the Federal Communications Commission to provide funding help to bring high-speed internet to rural areas.
“The new federal funding for broadband is driving demand nationally for fiber and for parts and supplies,” Buchanon said in a text message. “While this is a huge opportunity for us to construct a countywide network, delivery delays for new fiber orders are growing exponentially.”
That growth in demand and the resulting delays spurred Buchanon to call Monday’s meeting with only the one agenda item.
“The fiber supply is far outweighed by the rapidly growing demand,” Buchanon said. “There is a multi-month delivery delay for fiber at this time. Each day that passes before the order is placed adds weeks or months to the construction of the countywide network. If we take action and expedite the procurement process, we may be able to move faster than many other counties.”
The need to move fast is being driven by two FCC initiatives: the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund that helps internet service providers pay for extending broadband service to rural areas and the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program that helps qualifying households pay for internet service.
Cable and internet provider Charter Communications, which does business in Warren County as Spectrum, has already taken advantage of the RDOF program.
Through an auction process, Charter was awarded $1.2 million in RDOF money to reach more than 1,500 homes in the west and northwest parts of the county.
Likewise, Warren Rural Electric Cooperative Corp. and partner North Central Telephone Cooperative of Lafayette, Tenn., were awarded RDOF funds to provide internet service in the east and northeast parts of the county.
WRECC, which together with NCTC and the Franklin Electric Plant Board is receiving $2.3 million in RDOF funding to serve parts of four counties, has already worked with NCTC to bring broadband service to some rural areas in Warren County.
NCTC signed in 2017 a franchise agreement to provide internet and cable television service in Warren County. It began by running connections to the Drakes Ridge subdivision and other areas along the Scottsville Road corridor. Through a partnership with WRECC, it has since 2019 been providing service in the Alvaton and Boyce communities.
Kim Phelps, WRECC’s senior director of communications and public relations, said the partnership with NCTC has been well-received.
“Warren RECC and NCTC have been able to develop a successful model that we are able to scale quickly,” Phelps said in an email. “We are very pleased with the results of our projects in the southeast part of Warren County, and we look forward to any opportunity to grow our coverage to fill in the gaps of unserved or underserved residents in the county.”
The current rush to deliver fiber optic cable throughout the county is a welcome change for Buchanon, who said he has been trying to expand internet service in the county for longer than a decade.
Getting service to the sparsely populated areas of the county, though, has been a tall hurdle.
“We have been convinced for a long time that internet was becoming a necessity for education, for businesses and for every household,” Buchanon said. “We have tried to get multiple providers, tried to encourage our initial provider to expand, and looked at multiple ways to provide the service.
“For years our initial franchisee has had little or no interest in expanding to rural areas, which are far less profitable. Although we have always had a non-exclusive franchise for cable and internet service, other providers were reluctant to invest here.”
Now, with the pandemic further highlighting the importance of high-speed internet for work and learning, Buchanon and the magistrates are seeing momentum toward the goal of extending high-speed internet to all county residents.
Buchanon said the county will advertise for proposals to run internet service only to unserved or underserved parts of the county. Those areas already being served, mostly within the Bowling Green city limits, and those areas being reached through the RDOF-funded projects of Charter and WRECC will be excluded.
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