As Maury County Commissioners explore ways to secure funding to improve internet access in rural Maury County households, steep costs loom for such an undertaking.
In an effort to make the county eligible for future grant and federal funding to expand the region’s internet infrastructure, the Maury County Commission has moved forward with a resolution designating the county as a “Broadband Ready Community.”
The committee unanimously passed the resolution, which has since been passed by the full commission.
The resolution provides a streamlined policy for reviewing applications and issuing permits related to broadband service projects. The resolution creates a process that will allow the county to be poised for broadband access in the future.
More:In Columbia and Maury County, many still lack broadband access
The designation has previously been obtained by neighboring communities, including Lawrence, Williamson and Hickman counties.
Surrounding communities have received state and federal grant funding to expand its internet infrastructure, providing more access to rural communities.
In Maury County, 76.26% of households have access to broadband internet access, which includes data cell service, according to reports shared by Maury County Public Schools in 2019.
However, Maury County’s rural households still struggle with access to strong internet connection.
In Maury County about 93% of households could get broadband but 48% actually had it, according to data collected by the Federal Communications Commission and Microsoft.
The proportions of Tennessee households that have high speed access varies widely: In Perry County, it’s just 5%; in Moore County, it’s 6%; and in Wayne County, it’s 6%. Leading the state are Williamson County with 85%, Wilson County with 66% and Hamilton County with 66%.
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Among Tennessee’s wealthiest counties: 85% of Williamson County has access, 66% of Wilson County has access and 57% of Sumner County has access. Among the least-wealthiest counties, access rates are 11% in Hancock County, 18% in Clay County and 10% in Benton County.
“This resolution says we are seeking to receive private investment in Maury County,” said Scott Sumners, chairman of the county’s budget committee.
Providers seek assistance to expand service
Representatives of the broadband internet providers Charter Communication and United Communications recently addressed members of the budget committee about the issue.
Both Charter and United Communication’s requested $18.6 million to expand broadband internet service into the county’s most remote households.
More:How are Maury County schools using ESSER funds?
Doug Bates, a government affairs representative for Charter spoke before the board.
He said Charter provides high-speed service to 68 of Tennessee’s 95 counties.
He explained that a $19 million investment would bring service to 1,700 homes in underserved rural sections of Maury County.
“We provide the same baseline service to all of our customers,” Bates said. “You have the same quality of speeds and services no matter if you are in Mt. Pleasant, New York City or L.A.”
United Communications is a subsidiary of the Middle Tennessee Electric Cooperation, a member-owned nonprofit electric cooperative that serves more than 23,0000 meters in a four-county area south of Nashville, including Maury County.
United Communications CEO William Bradford told commissioners that it will take $30 million to ensure that the more than 6,000 homes in Maury County without broadband internet would gain access.
“We are already pretty invested in rural Tennessee, and we would love to do more here,” Bradford said. “We are mission-driven. You could bring to an end to this in Maury County.”
Meanwhile, the county commission is working toward a roadmap on how to spend $18.3 million given to the local government through the American Rescue Plan in response to COVID-19. This year, county departments have collectively requested approximately $97 million in various capital projects.
Commissions wary of funding internet providers
Commissioners shared concern that despite the county being designated the fastest growing community in the state, according to the 2020 U.S. Census, it has not been awarded any grant funding to expand its internet service.
The observation sparked the committees proposal to designate the county as broadband ready.
“It does not make sense to me that we have to have skin in the game for you to provide a service,” Sumners said. “We don’t make billions and billions of dollars. That is my issue with it all. That is the pickle that we are in. We have people who can’t get it because it is too expensive for you guys to give it to them.”
Despite consistent requests from constituents about bringing broadband into their homes, Commissioner Terry Potts said he does not approve of using the county’s funds to support a for-profit business.
“I have a problem giving away these dollars when you are a multi-billion company,” Potts said. “I can’t see myself supporting this.”
Commissioner Tommy Wolaver offered a similar sentiment.
“We don’t have the funds at this juncture to get broadband,” Wolaver said. “If I were a local organization that came to this committee to request funds, I would be offended.”
Commissioner Kevin Markham said the county should consider internet connectively before making a major investment.
“We need to think about the technology,” Markham said. “We need to investigate how expensive the technology is going to be; $11,000 a home to string up wire is pretty expensive.”
Reach Mike Christen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @MikeChristenCDH and on Instagram @michaelmarco. Please consider supporting his work and that of other Daily Herald journalists by subscribing to the publication.