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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Bledsoe Telephone Cooperative Cableman Jamey Guy sorts parts from a recent installation in the Coop's fiber cutting van. Bledsoe Telephone Cooperative has added gig service to about 55% of its rural service territory.

In the fourth year of its program to aid rural providers of high-speed broadband, Tennessee is awarding another $14.9 million of state grants to 13 telephone cooperatives, private cable TV companies and power coops to extend broadband service to underserved areas.

Collectively, the newest grants will expand service to support 17,800 unserved Tennesseans in 7,120 homes and businesses.

"Every Tennessean should have access to the same high-speed broadband, no matter what zip code they live in," Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said in an announcement of the grants on Friday. "Our continued investment in internet connectivity will help level the playing field for rural communities across our state."

Since the Broadband Accessibility Grant program began four years ago, the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development has awarded nearly $60 million in grants to help extend broadband coverage to more than 33,000 homes and businesses with 83,000 residents and workers.

But even with the high-speed internet connections, the Federal Communications Commission's 2020 Broadband Deployment Report said one in six rural Tennesseans still lack access to broadband, which the FCC defines as internet speeds of 25 megabits per second downstream and 3 megabits per second upstream. Although PC magazine recently rated Chattanooga as the best city in America for remote work because of its high-speed internet service from EPB, many rural areas of the state still lack any broadband coverage and are unable to compete for many remote or internet-dependent jobs.

"As many of us have transitioned to a lifestyle of working, telecommuting and learning from home, we have seen how much we rely on broadband, and those who do not have access are placed at a significant disadvantage," said Bob Rolfe, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development.

In his recent State of the State address, Lee proposed spending $200 million to achieve a goal of every Tennessean having access to high-speed broadband. Lee said the state grants, which must be matched by investments from the broadband providers, will help improve educational outcomes, expand access to health care, increase e-commerce and support small businesses in rural communities across the state.

The grant recipients for the state aid this year are providing a total of $21.1 million in matching funds to complete the projects selected by the state.

In Southeast Tennessee, Bledsoe Telephone Cooperative is getting a $727,955 grant to serving parts of Bledsoe County and Volunteer Energy Cooperative got $647,890 to serve parts of Meigs County.

Bledsoe Telephone Cooperative has been building a fiber optic network with gigabit-per-second service in parts of its sprawling 5-county service territory for more than five years.

Matt Boynton, engineering coordinator for the Bledsoe Telephone Coop, said the newest grant will help provide another 36.2 miles of fiber optic lines to serve 406 customers along Tennessee Highway 101 on the Cumberland plateau in rural Bledsoe County, one of the state's economically distressed counties.

Boynton said Bledsoe Telephone Coop has gotten state broadband grants for each of the past three years and has now extended its high-speed fiber network to about 55% of coop's 9,419 members. The telephone coop also provides DSL service with speeds of at least 10 megabits per second to all of its members in its 804-square-mile area, which includes parts of Bledsoe, Sequatchie, Cumberland, Van Buren and a small part of Hamilton County on Walden's Ridge.

Charlie Boring, general manger for Bledsoe Telephone Coop, said is committed to serving all customer with high-speed fiber optic service by 2024.

"We're working hard at expanding our service every day," Boynton said.

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

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