Planned expansion of fiber lines means roughly 90% percent of Madison County homes could have high speed internet options within the next two years. French Broad Electric announced the connectivity project in a July 27 event held at the electrical cooperative’s Marshall headquarters.
A $3 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture is key to the project. French Broad Electric General Manager Jeff Loven said without the federal investment – which will be matched with $1 million from FBEMC – the planned expansion of fiber internet lines to the Rector Corner, Little Pine, Big Pine and Spring Creek communities would not be possible.
“We couldn’t do it without it. I don’t know how to say it any other way,” Jeff Loven, French Broad Electric’s general manager, said of the grant award. “It’s financially impossible with when you start running the numbers. The costs, because of the low customer density, terrain, and because everything is so spread out, you just can’t cost justify it.”
Sonny Perdue, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, attended the outdoor event to celebrate the federal government’s involvement in the local internet project. He said French Broad Electric will be a great partner because of its existing infrastructure.
“They’ve already got rights of way, poles and lines, those kinds of things so they can hang fiber,” Perdue said in a one-on-one interview. “They’re scored based on need and application and it’s a pretty serious scoring process, so they actually won the grant award.”
Selecting service area
Loven said his conversations with residents have changed since French Broad Electric launched high speed internet service over two years ago. Where once he would “get hit up about a job or a right-of-way problem,” the focus of residents who stop to speak with him has shifted to the company’s broadband service.
“Now, 90% of time, it’s ‘I love that internet that you guys have got going.’ Or it’s, ‘When can I get it.’ That’s the two questions we get day in and day out.”
Loven said the selection of the area he referred to as southwest Madison County came as part of the grant’s terms. “When you get a grant, it dictates what area you’re going to, so that helps.”
The federal funding, part of the $100 million made available for the ReConnect Pilot Program through the CARES Act, will support further broadband expansion in Madison County. Loven said networks built through the grant will expand out to get neighboring communities.
“We will be getting to Sandy Mush, not as a direct part of this grant, but it allows us to reach out to Sandy Much. It will kind of coattail this grant, if you will,” Loven said.
When grants are not part of the selection process, Loven said decisions on where fiber will go are shaped by “where can we get the most bang for the buck the quickest.”
“That’s what we’re working on right now: north of Mars Hill, Beech Glen and Highway 23 areas.”
Loven estimated that currently French Broad Electric’s fiber internet service covers about half of the county geographically. He targeted serving upwards of 90% “within the next 18-24 months.”
“Everybody’s got to have access to the internet,” he said. “It’s of the utmost importance now. It looks like the 1930s and 40s all over again trying to get electricity out in a rural environment, now we’re trying to get this service out to the rural environment.”
Terry Bellamy, Madison County’s Community and Economic Development director, stressed the connectivity is critical to Madison County’s future. “This effort will help reduce the digital divide within Madison County and allow industries and small businesses the ability to expand in areas of Madison County that need increased economic development opportunities,” she wrote in a release.
Installation is expected to begin in the fall of this year.
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