Appalachian Electric Cooperative has been awarded a $1.7 million broadband accessibility grant according to an announcement Monday by Gov. Bill Lee.

A total of $14.8 million in grants will expand broadband service to more than 8,300 households and businesses in 17 counties across Tennessee.

The grant signals the go-ahead for the Jefferson County-based utility to complete work on its master plan.

“We applied in hopes that it would position us financially to begin the process,” AEC Director of Member Services Mitch Cain said this morning.

The Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development is working with the 13 grantees who demonstrated a high need for grant funding. Recipients also demonstrated the ability to implement and sustain the project long-term with strong community support.

“Broadband is critical to the sustained economic success of a community,” TNECD Commissioner Bob Rolfe. “By expanding broadband accessibility, we are extending the runway of possibilities for new industry and development right here in Tennessee.”

Grantees will provide $20 million in matching funds for a combined investment of nearly $35 million across the state for the second year of funding. Infrastructure should be built out within two years of receiving the grant funds.

As part of its work on a master plan, AEC has identified a partner for broadband service, but has not yet released the name of the partner – “We will announce when we can,” Cain said.

“The funds will come through TNECD later this year; we don’t have a date,” Cain said.

The grant dollars are earmarked for specific locations within the AEC service area, which include about 1,800 members in New Market and Piedmont. Cain and his staff are working today to modify its coverage map to indicate more exact locations.

“That’s our next step, to release the map and let folks see the area the award applies to,” Cain said.

The sole purpose of AEC, according to General Manager Greg Williams, has been to listen to the needs of its membership.

“We’ve heard them; they’ve made it known to us that broadband is their priority, and we want to meet the needs of our membership,” Williams said.

According to a statement posted on social media Monday afternoon, the utility is pulling its resources together for a launch later this year.

“We had hoped, and our goal still could be, to make an announcement at our annual meeting in September. I think that would be a perfect platform,” Cain said this morning. “We’d like to have the plans in place and the resources available and hopefully move forward.”

According to the FCC’s 2018 Broadband Deployment Report, nearly one in four rural Tennesseans lack access to broadband. In addition to the $20 million included in Gov. Lee’s recommended budget for fiscal year 2020, these grants will continue to close the access gap ensuring rural Tennesseans have the tools needed for growth and prosperity.

“I am pleased to announce that we are getting our rural areas up to speed and expanding broadband in the areas that need it most,” Lee said. “I am committed to ensuring connectivity in every corner of our state as broadband impacts our goals for health care, education, economic development and beyond.”

Grantees will provide $20 million in matching funds for a combined investment of nearly $35 million across the state for the second year of funding. Infrastructure should be built out within two years of receiving the grant funds.