COOKEVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — More than 150,000 Tennessee homes are living without adequate broadband internet, but Governor Bill Lee hopes the $447 million in federal grant money coming into the state will get them online.
“People are moving to Tennessee from across the nation in record numbers, and we have an obligation to prepare our state for continued growth,” Lee said.
But for Chris Dodds and his family, unreliable broadband access has been an issue for more than a decade on his five-acre property in Cookeville.
“I was so excited I grabbed my wife and was like, ‘We are finally gonna get high-speed internet. It’s fiber optic!” Dodds said about hearing the news of the nearly half a billion dollars being distributed to Tennessee companies to bring broadband to rural and unserved areas.
Dodds said his family always jokes that they know he is pulling into the driveway not because they hear the car on the gravel road, but because any movie or show they are watching will start buffering when his phone automatically connects to their home WiFi.
“It’s a constant circus of juggling around devices and juggling around bandwidth to accomplish our everyday tasks,” he said.
He said despite paying more than $100 a month for internet when they first moved in, they could not count on it working when they needed it.
“Unreliable anytime it rained, anytime there was any type of storm we would go a week or two weeks without service. And let’s face it, that cuts off communication to the outside world,” Dodd said.
He explained that the lack of reliable internet became an even bigger issue during the height of the pandemic.
At that time, he was starting his home entertainment business and his two daughters were remote learning. He said to make sure everyone in the family was able to get their work done they had to drive 20 to 25 minutes into town to find a restaurant or store with free WiFi they could use.
“There are times when I go to town just to send an email. There are times when my customers can’t reach me because my data is tied up,” Dodd said.
A speed test, showed that Dodd’s at-home internet speed is 10-15 Mbps, but when the fiber optic lines are all set up, his speed will go up 1000 times.
“Audio, video, any kind of zoom, any kind of online learning, it might work somewhat, but 10 Mbps just doesn’t cut it in today’s world,” said Twin Lakes Telephone Cooperative General Manager Jonathan West.
West’s company was awarded more than $10 million from the Biden Administration’s American Rescue Plan to bring faster internet to parts of Putnam County, which includes Dodd’s home.
West said the project will likely cost more than the millions of dollars they were allocated. He said they will start work on the project that will span 200 miles within the next 30 days, but the whole process will take about 30 months. However, some homes may see their internet speeds increase earlier than that.
President and CEO of United Communications William Bradford’s company received one of the largest shares of the $447 million. He said his team was “doing backflips” when they saw the final total.
Bradford said he knows getting all the materials needed to improve broadband access will be difficult given current supply chain issues, but he is optimistic they will be able to get it done.
“This is what we do day in and day out is we build projects in the hardest to serve areas of middle Tennessee,” he said.
And Dodd said once all the construction is done, this will be a huge improvement to the lives of rural Tennesseeans.
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“It’s huge for us,” Dodd said.