About 200 local residents turned out Feb. 22 to learn about the Lenoir City Utilities Board’s plan to provide broadband Internet service to customers.
Those present at the public hearing at The Venue at Lenoir City had the opportunity to voice their opinions and ask questions about the project, which is estimated to cost $132 million.
The vast majority of people who spoke at the hearing were in favor of the project.
The meeting was a prerequisite for an upcoming vote by Lenoir City Council and the LCUB Board of Directors on whether or not to proceed with the project. Board and council members were seated at the front of the meeting room.
Tony Aikens, Mayor of Lenoir City and President of the LCUB, opened the meeting by thanking the public for their interest. He denounced “robot texts” and social media posts that appeared ahead of the meeting, urging residents of Lenoir City to speak out against the project.
LCUB chief executive Shannon Littleton said the utility has already installed 84 miles of fiber optic cable to act as a backbone for power grid upgrades.
The decision to install a fiber optic line across LCUB’s entire customer footprint was made to create a smart, self-healing power grid that would increase reliability and save money, a- he declared.
“If you like this idea, the board needs to hear it,” Littleton said. “If you think it’s a bad decision, the board needs to hear it.”
Jeremy Walden, director of the LCUB’s electrical department, explained that the benefits of grid modernization have already been proven in other cities where customer outages have been significantly reduced and hundreds of millions of dollars in utility costs have been reduced. operation saved.
High-speed Internet service is a logical complement to the fiber optic network already installed, Walden said. Fiber is key to improving internet performance and requires what’s already installed for the power grid, he said.
Walden said the pandemic has revealed the importance of internet connectivity for business, education and society at large. LCUB’s entry into the market will provide Internet customers with superior choices and performance, he said.
Increasing broadband availability and performance could generate economic development benefits in the LCUB service area, including more jobs, new businesses, and options for work, education, entertainment and medical applications.
In order to implement the project, LCUB will create a fifth utility division to complement the existing water, sewer, gas and electric divisions. Littleton previously said $132 million would be borrowed from the electrical division to fund the project. There are no planned price increases to pay for the implementation of the service. Customers will receive a separate Internet service bill.
Customer service and support will be provided locally.
All current LCUB electricity customers will be offered broadband services. The performance of the service will be a symmetric download/upload speed of 1 gigabit per second.
“It will be the only full fiber to the house in our service area,” Walden said.
At a rate of about 45 miles per month, it would take about three years to install the 1,600 miles of fiber needed to serve all customers. If approved, construction will begin in early May and new customers could be added as early as late summer/early fall.
Starting locations will be determined by utility needs, funding and the best path to complete construction in three years, Walden said.
Following Walden’s presentation, the floor was given to members of the public who wished to speak or ask questions.
The first speaker was Dakota Gordon, who said he represented Tennesseans for a Better Tomorrow, a conservative political action committee. He said he was worried about the expansion of government and potential nepotism between the LCUB board and the city council.
A LinkedIn profile for a Gordon only said he was from Murfreesboro and was a student at Middle Tennessee State University in 2013.
Aikens responded that in the 1960s, Lenoir City voters approved the composition of the LCUB board of directors to include the city council.
More than 20 attendees living in the LCUB service area have spoken out in favor of the project, with many telling stories of being underserved by current internet options. Many thanked the LCUB for undertaking the project and asked if their area could be among the first served.
“As an engineer, I’m excited, very excited about broadband,” said John Wade. “Right now, we are underserved.”
Wade said the big names in internet service don’t seem to notice customers in his area. He said even cellphone coverage was poor due to the hilly terrain.
“Thank you,” he said. “We look forward to having essential services.”
Jennifer Morris, a teacher, said she had been asking for better broadband service in her home for five years. During the pandemic, she said she was unable to get enough service to work from home. She said until recently that she never understood how the internet was going to change our lives.
Morris said his current level of internet access is akin to using a candle to light the house. She said providing broadband internet service was similar to the need for rural electricity that prompted the Rural Electrification Act 1936.
Fred and Sue Dolislager said their only internet service options include cellular data or satellite. Fred said he was told it would cost thousands to have the internet in his home. He said he spent hours at the Flying J roadhouse hot spot educating his children.
“Please offer him our region,” he said. “Start with my house.”
Airline pilot Tim Strunk said when he told people in other parts of the country that he had no internet at his home in Beals Chapel Road, they were stunned. He said he approved of the LCUB’s decision to offer the service.
“It’s wonderful,” he said. “I appreciate it.”
Sid Murray said he had tried everything, including hotspots and satellite, to get internet at home. He said providers told him he should just leave the house he had lived in for 12 years.
Ben Satterfield said he needed the internet all his life. He said he traveled to Denny’s from his Rocky Top Road home to use the internet. “Please make this happen,” he said.
Although Bob Johnson is happy with his internet service, he said he came to the meeting to find out how the utility will pay for the broadband investment. He said he was happy to hear there was a good plan.
“I like to see Lenoir City grow,” he said.
Others asked about when the service would be available in their area. Aikens said specific information was currently confidential, but a website with details would be up and running within a month.
Tom Lively said he thought LCUB was a logical provider of the service. He said he dropped some of his cable and internet services because the rate was too high.
“I want to see a good competitive rate,” he said.
David Brewster said he ran a business that could grow his business and pay more taxes if he could get better internet service to his home.