Charter Communications kicked off its planned expansion of fiber-optic high-speed broadband service in Cumberland County Friday.
“Charter’s new fiber-optic network will deliver gigabit-speed broadband access to all newly served customer locations, with starting speeds of 200 Mbps and no modem fees, data caps or contracts,” Marva Johnson, group vice president of government affairs for Charter, said during the event. “This expanded connectivity will enable consumers to engage in remote learning, work, telehealth and much more, positively impacting local communities.”
The project is part of the company’s $4.8 million federal Rural Digital Opportunity Fund grant, awarded in January, that will expand its Cumberland County network to an estimated
5,900 homes and small businesses. The company currently serves about 5,000 customers in the county.
The grant was part of a $90 million in federal funding to expand broadband service to more than 70,000 locations in Tennessee tcurrently without access to broadband internet service.
“As we embark on what is the largest rural broadband build in perhaps the history of our country — certainly the history of Tennessee — we look to Cumberland County today for our first groundbreaking to mark that effort,” Johnson said.
The new network will include a state-of-the-art fiber network capable of offering up to 1 gigabit of download speed and 500 Mbps for uploads. It will also include a mobility platform.
Work is ready to begin, with the company working with local governments and utility providers for permits to extend the new fiber lines.
It’s one of multiple broadband expansion programs ongoing in the community. Internet providers in Cumberland County have benefited from several state and federal grants since 2020, including VolFirst Services, a subsidiary of Ben Lomand Telephone, which received a $1.9 million state broadband accessibility grant in March 2021, a $2 million grant in 2020 to expand service in the northern part of Cumberland County and a $2.24 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to serve about 100 square miles of rural Cumberland County and a $1.9 million grant to serve 152 homes in the southwestern portion of Cumberland County.
Volunteer Energy Cooperative and Twin Lakes Telephone Cooperative received a $3.3 million grant to expand service in the Cumberland Cove area through federal COVID-19 relief funding.
Cumberland County Mayor Allen Foster said broadband was the top issue people brought to him when he ran for county mayor in 2018.
“Everywhere I went, hands down the largest issue was poor broadband service,” Foster said.
Once elected, he said he started making calls, to providers, to regulators, to lawmakers.
“The providers didn’t know how bad it was in Cumberland County,” Foster said.
Grants were awarded based on FCC maps of high-speed service, defined as 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speed. But the data for the maps was self-reported by providers, and federal rules only required one home in a Census block to have high-speed service to consider the entire block served.
“They said it was a unique situation in Cumberland County,” Foster said of his talks with state and federal agencies.
Foster launched a survey in 2019 that asked residents to test their internet speed and report the results. That data allowed service providers to challenge the self-reported service maps and apply for grants.
“It’s going to take a team to build out Cumberland County,” Foster said. “I am just so thankful for everyone that is involved.”
Tennessee Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton said broadband internet access is critical to rural communities for access to education, telehealth services and economic opportunities.
“You should not be limited in your success in life based on where you live,” Sexton said. “Bringing [broadband] to the rural areas will allow people to work, live and play wherever they choose.”
Sexton said the state has invested $160 million in expanding broadband access across Tennessee, with another $500 million earmarked in federal COVID-19 recovery funding for broadband internet expansion.
The event took place at the Mayland Fire Hall, with Johnson discussing how important reliable broadband networks were to emergency communication services.
The groundbreaking also included a $6,000 donation to Fair Park Senior Center in Cumberland County. Funds will be used to update computer equipment, provide daily computer lab access and allow the center to host digital literacy classes on using computers, tablets and smartphones.
Johnson said Charter does offer funding to help low-income families with school-age children or seniors access internet service.
The company will make additional announcements regarding availability of service in the coming months. Residents can visit www.SpectrumRuralExpansion.com and enter their address to determine if they are in an area where the buildout is planned and to sign up for updates regarding service availability.