Rural areas in Marion County could still get broadband access

Staff file photo / Service technicians Stacy Mann, left, and Nathen Lloyd step out of an EPB trailer with a newly installed fiber optics cable during an installation at CityGreen Apartments in Chattanooga's North Shore area in 2016.

JASPER, Tenn. - Like many local governments across Tennessee, Marion County leaders have been pushing for a couple of years to change state laws that restrict municipal utilities like EPB's gigabit internet, TV, and phone services from expanding beyond current borders.

EPB has petitioned the state and the Federal Communications Commission, too, and Mike Partin, president and CEO of the Sequatchee Valley Electric Cooperative, said broadband access has been "widely debated across the state."

"So far in the [state] Legislature, that has been defeated," he said. "AT&T has a pretty extensive lockdown, it seems like, in the Legislature. That's one of the holdups."

Telecommunications companies such as AT&T and Comcast argue that it's unfair to allow government to compete the market with private industry.

Partin said there is a "good opportunity" for that barrier to fall in the upcoming legislative session, and the SVEC has been preparing for that.

"We've been quietly building out our fiber backbone over the last couple of years," he said.

Municipal electric systems, like EPB, can provide fiber and broadband within their footprint, but electric cooperatives can only offer dark fiber.

"Dark fiber is just fiber that's hung up there," Partin said. "We have the capacity as the electric cooperative to lease dark fiber so [a provider] can light that fiber and put content on it."

That's already happening in one rural area of the county.

The Jasper Highlands development near Kimball, Tenn., leases dark fiber from the SVEC, while the broadband content is provided by the North Alabama Electric Cooperative just a few miles away.

"We have built in enough capacity within our system to be able to do other things as the law permits," Partin said.

Marion leaders have made no secret of their desire to bring EPB's services to the county.

Commissioner Allen Kirk called EPB's high-speed internet service "a Cadillac."

Commissioner Joey Blevins, who lives within EPB's small service area in the county, agreed.

"It's very reliable, and it is way better than what I had before," he said. "No issues. The service is tremendous."

However, Partin said the entire issue would boil down to density.

EPB has about 60 customers per mile, while the SVEC has 12 customers per mile.

"Once you start putting the pencil to that, and it's about $20,000 per mile to put fiber in, not counting the drops to the homes and those type things, you can see it's going to take a heck of a long time build out a system and make it pay for itself," Partin said.

There are opportunities for the SVEC to partner with other Internet providers in Marion "if that fence comes down" at the state level, he said, and EPB would likely look to expand to Bradley County anyway.

"Broadband high-speed internet is the electricity of the 1930s and 1940s today," Partin said. "Every home and every business needs access. If there's opportunities there to take it out to the [rural areas], there's going to have to be some federal money there."

Commissioner Tommy Thompson said even though rural electric power started back in the 1930s, the rural area he grew up in didn't get it until 1951.

"We want instant gratification, and I can understand that," he said. "But it took 20 years to get electricity to all these locations, so that's just another way of looking at things. I don't think it's going to take that long to get fiber there, but it doesn't happen overnight."

Ryan Lewis is based in Marion County. Contact him at