By LISA WHALEY
BrightRidge is now offering broadband to Bowmantown and Pleasant Valley, as well as opening the door to Wi-Fi for students via 28 new free WiFi locations in Washington County, the public utility announced at a press conference on Dec. 10.
“It is unquestionably a game changer,” said Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy, who also serves on the BrightRidge Board of Directors. “We have places in the county that were woefully underserved. Dial up at best. And that just doesn’t work with modern devices. This brings a whole new level of internet opportunity and broadband service to the rural parts of the county.”
The $3 million project was funded with $2.46 million from six Tennessee Emergency Broadband Emergency Broadband Grants, awarded in late August by the Tennessee Department of Economic & Community Development. The project was completed on time and on budget in just under four months.
“Throughout the pandemic, our community and our board of directors placed a huge responsibility on BrightRidge to do all we can to assist our region in responding to a dramatically different reality where success at work and in the classroom largely depends on the availability of high-speed internet,” BrightRidge CEO Jeff Dykes said. “Lighting 28 high-speed free, public Wi-Fi locations is a major step in addressing availability. At the same time, because Bowmantown and Pleasant Valley were completely unserved, those areas were eligible for grant support to extend high-speed fiber to the premise in these locations.”
The impact on local education cannot be exaggerated, according to Washington County Director of School Bill Flanary.
“Back on March 16 Gov. Bill Lee recommended that public schools across the state shut down,” Flanary said. “We didn’t know how long this shutdown would be, but immediately our supervisors, our principals and, more importantly, our teachers began looking for things keep our kids engaged with what they were doing in class.”
The school district’s new Chromebooks, 9,000 in all, he said, seemed perfect for the task, complete with a built-in microphone, webcam and the ability to download important educational software.
But without internet access, Flanary said, “these expensive pieces of technology are useless.”
“Today,” he said, “hundreds and hundreds of homes that did not have internet access, have access, and that translates into hundreds and hundreds of children.”
That also translates into jobs for the future, according to Nathan Woods, with the Department of Economic and Community Development.
“What that does from an economic development standpoint is when we are trying to recruit companies to the area, this is a gold star,” Woods said. “We can say definitely have something to offer that no one else has. That’s part of the reason the state is so behind it.”
“Another thing I would add is companies are always asking about educated workforce and this is only going to help with that.”
The project required installation of 64.92 miles of new fiber optic to serve 28 schools and community buildings in Washington and Sullivan counties as well as the communities of Bowmantown and Pleasant Valley/Key Mills. In addition to service equipment at each public Wi-Fi location, the grant paid for fiber optic drops at every home in the unserved area.
“We have seen very strong customer response to having high-speed broadband internet in this area,” BrightRidge Chief Broadband Officer Stacy Evans said. “The take rate is currently about 50 percent. We have seen throughout the pandemic the critical importance of having high-speed broadband available.”