DUNLAP, Tenn. — Jeff Mackey, a former Radio Shack store manager who started his own IT consulting company two decades ago, has built his business by installing and upgrading fiber optic and advanced telecom systems within businesses all over the world.
But at his home in Sequatchie County, Mackey has struggled just to get reliable internet service with an acceptable download speed.
"I moved to Cagle and later Fredonia because of the peaceful, beautiful environment here, but you just could not get reasonable internet service," said Mackey, who ultimately had to install a satellite dish in his backyards to get the broadband service he needed to run his business. "The speeds and reliability were just horrible, and for my business, the connection speeds were just not acceptable."
But Mackey and other residents in rural Sequatchie and Bledsoe counties are about to get upgraded with fiber optic service that will provide gigabit-per-second internet speeds, courtesy of the same phone co-op that first strung telephone lines across the Sequatchie Valley more than a half century ago.
Bledsoe Telephone Cooperative is building a fiber optic network to serve its sprawling five-county service territory, beginning with service in the most populated areas in its customer base in Dunlap and Pikeville, Tenn.
"We're aggressively building fiber to home," said Charlie Boring, a 22-year employee with the Bledsoe Telephone Co-op who became its general manager last year. "We're looking by the end of the year that 40 to 50 percent of our customers will be able to get 25 megabits download speed and three megabits upload speed. We realize that this is a work in progress, but over the next five years, I think we're looking at 75 to 80 percent of our customers will get 25-3."
The fiber optic systems being built by the telephone co-op here and others across Tennessee are seen by the co-ops as the best solution to bringing needed broadband service to rural Tennessee and, in their view, should discourage Tennessee lawmakers from allowing electric co-ops to get into telecommunications or from permitting municipal power companies like EPB from expanding into their territory.
Bledsoe Telephone Co-op has built 154 satellite offices and laid 688 miles of fiber optic lines to those satellite facilities as the first step toward bringing high-speed gig service to this rural part of Southeast Tennessee.
The Bledsoe Co-op plans to spend about $600,000 a year over the next five years on its fiber-to-the-home system — and far more if a $8 million loan requested from the USDA Rural Utilities Service is approved for its broadband upgrade, according to Matt Boyington, the engineering coordinator for the Bledsoe coop.
So far, about 200 customers have been connected for fiber service in a 60-mile area of Dunlap.
Boring concedes it will take time and may require state assistance to bring fiber to the home across the co-op's entire 804-square-mile territory.
But the co-op is committed to bringing service to all of its customers, just as it did laying telephone lines across its entire footprint after its creation in 1953.
"The last mile of service is always the most expensive and it simply costs much more per customer to serve sparsely populated rural areas like we serve than it does to serve an urban county like EPB serves in Chattanooga," Boring said. "We're setting our rates to be competitive and similar to other areas, but it costs us much more to lay the fiber to all our homes, and many of our customers, even when it is available, are not necessarily going to buy this service."
Mackey said Boring's approach is much different and better than his predecessor's. Mackey, who was elected a Sequatchie County commissioner in 2014, said the co-op's former general manager, Greg Anderson, previously urged Mackey to leave Sequatchie County after he continually raised concerns about the lack of broadband service.
"He told me he would pay for me to rent a U-haul truck to get me out of the county," Mackey said.
Mackey embraced the idea last year of helping Sequatchie County residents connect with Chattanooga's "Gig City" via EPB. He urged his fellow county commissioners earlier this year to back state legislation to remove the territorial limits blocking EPB from moving beyond its power service territory into the Sequatchie Valley and other neighboring areas with its ultra-fast broadband service.
Under Tennessee law, EPB is restricted with its telecommunications programs to serving only those within its TVA-designated power service territory.
The Federal Communications Commission ruled those state limits violated the federal mandate to expand broadband and voted 3 to 2 to strike down state limits on municipal broadband in Tennessee and North Carolina. But a federal appellate court this summer said the FCC overstepped its authority with its ruling and upheld the state restrictions.
The Tennessee Legislature will consider bills next year to expand broadband services in rural areas through a variety of ways, including allowing municipal power utilities like EPB to expand telecom services across the state or letting electric co-ops get into broadband services.
Boring contends that rural telephone co-ops are best able to serve their rural areas and that allowing municipal power utilities or electric co-ops to expand may undermine expansion of broadband by rural telephone co-ops.
"What we need to determine as a state is whether we are concerned with rural Tennessee or are we just concerned with letting the munis and the co-ops offer broadband," he said.
"If you look at the telephone co-ops, they have done a great job over the past 60 years of taking care of their customers. It's hard work when we are making these long loops. If you let the munis and the co-ops jump in, that is only going to hurt rural Tennessee (by expanding only into limited areas of the rural counties). There is no business plan for serving these rural areas — it cost too much to do so."
Sequatchie County has an average of 53.1 people per square mile, while Bledsoe has only 31.7 people per square mile. By comparison, Hamilton County has an average of 620.3 people per square mile.
Bledsoe Telephone Co-op was organized and acquired the Southern Continental Telephone System in Pikeville, Tenn., in 1953 and bought the Sequatchie Valley Mutual Telephone Co. in Dunlap, Tenn., five years later. The phone co-op expanded into cable television in 1981 and started internet service in 1995.
Contact Business Editor Dave Flessner at email@example.com or 423-757-6340.