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Houses sit atop Jasper Mountain in Jasper Highlands Thursday, January 10, 2019 in Marion County, Tennessee. Jasper Highlands is a private community in Southeast Tennessee located on the top of Jasper Mountain, overlooking the Cumberland Plateau, Tennessee River and Nickajack Lake.

When John "Thunder" Thornton began developing Jasper Mountain nearly a decade ago, the Chattanooga developer was unable to get local utilities to make the investment to extend either water service or high-speed internet up the mountain to his 8,893-acre residential project.

To entice retirees and other home buyers to his Jasper Highlands gated complex, Thornton built his own water service in 2012 and leased some of the dark fiber optic lines of the local electric co-op to connect with North Alabama Electric Cooperative in Stevenson, Alabama, to gain high-speed gigabit internet service in 2016.

"We're property developers and homebuilders, but we knew in today's world you have to have high-speed internet and quality utility service to attract the kind of homebuyers we have now brought to Jasper Highlands from 47 states and seven different countries," Thornton said. "But we knew we didn't want to be in the utility business forever."

So last Friday, the Sequachee Valley Electric Cooperative took over Thornton's Hi-Tech Data LLC with its SVEConnect high-speed broadband network, which the power co-op started 18 months ago after the Tennessee Legislature authorized such co-ops to get into the telecommunications business. Tennessee still forbids municipal utilities from stretching outside of their power delivery region, which blocked the original effort by Thornton to get Chattanooga's EPB to bring its high-speed broadband to his Marion County project.

What Thornton bills as "Gig Mountain" has attracted a couple of hundred users on the Jasper Mountain, and officials with SVEConnect say they are glad to acquire the expanded customer base.

"It makes sense for us to utilize the existing fiber network Jasper Highlands already has in place, considering they never intended to enter the utility business," said Mike Partin, president and CEO of Sequachee Valley Electric Cooperative. "We look forward to offering our Jasper Highlands members continued gig-speed internet service, phone service and now, fiber-to-the-home television service."

Rates will remain about the same for the Jasper Mountain customers, but SVEConnect will add a suite of video and TV services. The acquisition of the Jasper Highlands broadband service will add to the roughly 3,000 customers SVEConnect has already hooked up in Marion County, where the utility is in the midst of an $18 million to $20 million build-out of fiber optic service with gig connections to all homes and businesses in Marion County not served by telephone co-ops with such service.

SVEConnect has been aided by $3.5 million in state and federal grants to help broaden broadband services in rural parts of Tennessee. Although EPB is banned under state law from expanding its 10-gig service outside of its own 600-square-mile service territory, EPB does provide technical backup for SVEConnect and its 24-hour-a-day services.

In addition to selling his high speed internet, Thornton said he is eager to sell the water utility he built atop Jasper Mountain in 2012 to Tennessee American Water. The Chattanooga water utility, the largest privately held water system in Tennessee, has filed an application with the Tennessee Public Utility Commission, which regulates private utilities, to buy the Jasper Mountain water system.

Tennessee American Water, a subsidiary of American Water Works, previously bought the Whitwell water utility in 2013 and offered to buy the Signal Mountain city water system, although Signal Mountain ultimately decided against such a sale.

"We know they have the trucks, equipment and manpower and can take advantage of their economies of scale to run our water system," Thornton said.

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

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