Two internet service providers are asking for the community’s help as they prepare grant applications to expand service in Cumberland County.

Ben Lomand Connect and Bledsoe Telephone Cooperative are requesting residents of the areas they are eyeing for grant applications complete short surveys regarding their current internet service. 

BTC hopes to complete a fiber optic expansion in the southern portion of Cumberland County, including the Vandever and Breckenridge communities. The survey is available online at btcfiber.com.

Ben Lomand Connect is applying for grants in large portions of the county that include areas within the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th Civil Districts. Individuals living in these districts area asked to fill out the survey at www.benlomandconnect.com/broadband-survey. Support letters for the grant application may be mailed to communitysupport@benlomand.net.

The companies ask residents to use their home internet connection when testing current service speed. 

“Grant support is critical to this project, and community support is an important component of the grant application,” said Cumberland County Mayor Allen Foster in a recent press release. “Be sure to complete these surveys even if you have done so in the past.”

Tennessee has designated $400 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to support broadband internet expansion in the state. Grants are available to providers to expand service to underserved areas.

The state grants include a match from providers — up to 30% of the cost. The Cumberland County Commission voted in January to dedicate up to $3 million of its $11.74 million in ARP funds to support broadband expansion. Providers awarded grants for Cumberland County projects may request 10% to 20% of the funding match requirements from the county.

County support can bolster a grant application, Foster told members of the county commission in January. Plus, the county would have additional assurance the project meets federal requirements for using ARP money if the project has been approved by the state.

Residents across the county have struggled to access reliable, high-speed internet service. Foster said it was the top concern he heard about when running for office in 2018.

Those complaints led to a countywide survey to assess internet access and challenge maps used by the Federal Communications Commission. Those maps had used information provided by internet service companies and were based on Census blocks. If a provider reported one customer in a Census block received high-speed internet service — defined as 25 megabytes per second download speed and 3 megabytes per second upload speed — then the FCC considered the area served.

Residents provided their internet speed data to Foster as part of a 2019 survey. The results showed large portions of the county lacked high-speed internet access and helped providers challenge the FCC maps as they applied for grants.

Companies have since been successful in grant programs, with six grants awarded for expansion of internet service in Cumberland County since February 2020:

• February 2020, $2.2 million USDA Reconnect Grant to Ben Lomand to serve 222 homes across about 100 square miles in the areas of Smith Mountain, Millstone Mountain and Long Rockhouse Branch near Crab Orchard and north of Fairfield Glade west toward No Business Creek and Clear Creek

• April 2020, $2 million grant from the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development to Ben Lomand to serve about 1,500 locations in the Hwy. 127 N. area

• October 2020, $1.9 million USDA Reconnect Grant to Ben Lomand to serve 84 addresses and about 25 square miles in the southwestern portion of the county

• December 2020, $3.3 million CARES Act grant to Volunteer Energy Cooperative and Twin Lakes to extend service in the Cumberland Cove area

• February 2021, $4.8 million Rural Digital Opportunity Fund grant to Charter Communications to extend service to about 6,000 additional homes in the county. The new service areas account for about 20% of all households in the county

• March 2021, $1.9 million Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development grant to Ben Lomand to expand service to 1,125 locations in the county

Grant applications for state funding are due in March, with awards tentatively set for announcement in early summer 2022.

“Remember, just because your location may not be in one of these areas, it doesn’t mean you are out of luck,” Foster added. “Other providers are seeking grants as well. I will keep you updated as more information becomes available.”

Heather Mullinix is editor of the Crossville Chronicle. She covers schools and education in Cumberland County. She may be reached at hmullinix@crossville-chronicle.com.

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