Appalachian Electric Cooperative made a presentation to the Grainger County Commission on the expansion of broadband internet service in the county.

AEC is partnering with Trilight, a coalition of three telephone cooperatives in Middle Tennessee that came together after Gov. Bill Haslam signed the Broadband Accessibility Act in 2017. Trilight comprises DTC Communications, Highland Telephone Cooperative and Twin Lakes telephone cooperatives. DTC serves the Murfreesboro area, Twin Lakes is based in Cookeville and HTC serves Morgan County.

“The three co-ops said ‘let’s go together and these electric co-ops who want to go into the broadband business, we’ll partner with them to do something good together,’” AEC General Manager Greg Williams said.

Three years ago, AEC did a feasibility study which found out that 20 percent of AEC customers do not have access to broadband internet services and a large amount of Grainger County was underserved.

“We wanted to do a partnership from the very beginning,” Williams said. “We got several replies from that, and from there, we went to a request for proposal. We got four back and we engaged Trilight.”

Williams said that a partnership allows for faster time for broadband to get to the marketplace.

Trilight signed an agreement last spring to provide service to AEC through iRis Network, a statewide fiber optic network.

“The iRis Network fiber optic line actually lands at Cherokee Dam,” Williams said. “There is a Pop, or point of presence, site near Cherokee Dam. It gives us a connection from there back to these folks, our connection to the world.”

Williams said that where the fiber optic line comes to Cherokee Dam gives AEC an advantage.

AEC covers parts of five different counties, including a third of Grainger County. Other counties served are Hamblen, Hawkins, Jefferson, and Sevier. Substations located in Grainger County include Oakland, which is the substation at Cherokee Dam, on U.S. Highway 11W in Rutledge and a recently rebuilt substation in Bean Station. Fiber optic cable is already available at the three substations.

AEC currently serves 9,300 customers in Grainger County, 26,000 customers in Hamblen County and Jefferson County, 1,700 in Sevier County and 19 members in Hawkins County.

Williams said that expectations are to eventually have broadband service to all of AEC’s electric customers. He also said that the broadband project is multi-phased and will be a multi-year project, depending on grant funding. All phases must meet expectations before another phase is started and each phase must be of the highest quality and reliability, along with competitive rates and local service.

According to Williams, of the 2,200 members who can now get broadband, there have been only 150 connections in three months. Half of those connections have been to the 1 gigabyte service.

In many of the areas, there are competition from other companies, such as AT&T, Frontier, Spectrum and Comcast. The project is expected to take as long as five years, but could be finished faster depending on grants.

Currently, the first phase is in the Jefferson City and Dandridge areas, providing service to 11,000 homes. Phase II is 7,000 customers in New Market, Piedmont and Douglas Dam areas. Phase III, which will be funded by a $500,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission, will serve the Mitchell’s Bend area.

The project is slated to go to the south side of Clinch Mountain. The north side of Clinch Mountain will be serviced by Powell Valley Electric Cooperative, who has partnered with Scott County Telephone Cooperative of Gate City, Virginia, for broadband service.