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After struggling to upload video and other images in a timely manner for his RVRB media agency in Cleveland, Tennessee, Clark Campbell decided nearly two years ago to relocate the business to downtown Chattanooga which boasts the fastest internet service in the Western Hemisphere.

"The No. 1 reason for moving was to get faster internet service," Campbell said Monday. "I love Cleveland and I still live there. But when our business was in downtown Cleveland, there were times when we had to drive to Ooltewah or wherever EPB's faster internet service was available so we could upload footage. In Cleveland it would take days and days versus 30 minutes in Chattanooga."

Campbell said there was the chance to get high-speed internet shortly before he relocated, but Campbell said RVRB would have had to pay more than $10,000 for installation and five times more per month for internet service than the $300-a-month business rate the company pays EPB in Chattanooga.

Campbell, whose experience was showcased around the world over the weekend in a CNN report on the digital divide between Chattanooga and Cleveland, is among a number of Bradley County residents who say they would like the faster speeds and rates offered by EPB in their community.

Cleveland Mayor Kevin Brooks, who tried unsuccessfully in the Tennessee Legislature to convince his colleagues to allow municipal power companies like EPB to extend high-speed internet outside of their current territories, said concerns over inadequate internet service are frequently voiced in Cleveland.

"I hear about broadband as much as I do any other topic," Brooks told CNN. "If we don't cross this digital divide, Cleveland, Tennessee will plateau and cease to grow."

AT&T and Charter Communications, which serve Bradley County with internet and video services, say they have offered high-speed internet service via fiber lines in Cleveland since mid 2016. Ann Elsas, public relations manager in the Southeast for AT&T, said the telecom provider has AT&T Fiber to more than 12,000 locations in the city of Cleveland.

"Additionally, in early 2017 we began deploying Fixed Wireless Internet in rural communities across the country," she said. "We have committed to offer this service to more than 1.1 million hard to reach locations by 2020."

To extend the reach of the FirstNet communications platform for public safety agencies, AT&T deployed Band 14 spectrum in more than 600 urban and rural markets nationwide, including Knoxville, Maury, Memphis and Nashville.

"When not in use by FirstNet subscribers, AT&T customers can enjoy Band 14's added coverage and capacity," Elsas said.

In May, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced $14.8 million in broadband accessibility grants that will expand broadband service to more than 8,300 households and businesses in 17 counties across Tennessee.

But in rural areas of America, including some parts of Bradley County, 24 million Americans still lack access to broadband service, which the Federal Communications Commission defines as having download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of 3 megabits per second. In other areas, the cost of high-speed internet service, including the installation charges, is simply too expensive for many persons or businesses.

Bob and Amanda Pritchard are among those in Bradley County just outside of Chattanooga unable to get broadband service. Bob Pritchard, an assistance principal, and Amanda Pritchard, who is trying to start her own fresh-cut flowers business, told CNN that having high-speed internet is critical for commerce and education.

"It's essential," Bob Pritchard said.

EPB pioneered the first gigabit-per-second internet service for an entire city through its fiber optic division, which the power company created a decade ago to help upgrade its electric system with a smart grid. Chattanooga's electric utility was aided by the largest single federal stimulus grant for broadband service, which gave EPB more than $111 million of federal dollars to help fund the build out of the $240 million fiber network across Chattanooga.

EPB now has more than 103,000 customers of its EPBFi, which offers internet, video and phone service throughout its 600-square-mile area.

Mobile 5G service could provide high-speed internet service for mobile connections, but EPB President David Wade said last week that the 5G service is still dependent upon having a strong wired network like what EPB has for support and data transfer.

"I think 5G will be great for many urban areas, but it's not really going to be a solution for rural areas," Wade told the EPB board on Friday.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.

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