Holston Electric Cooperative, which serves more than 30,000 customers in Hawkins and Hamblen counties, announced this week the creation of a new broadband subsidiary it’s calling HolstonConnect.
HEC general manager Jimmy Sandlin told the Times News Thursday the company expects to begin running broadband lines to HEC members sometime this summer, and the goal is to have the service available to the entire 525-square-mile system in three to five years.
Last month, the HEC board of directors voted to move forward with the project, which is now entering the engineering phase, so there’s no exact construction timeline yet.
HEC also hasn’t decided which communities will be first to receive broadband.
How much will the project cost?
Sandlin couldn’t say with any certainty Thursday, but during an HEC member meeting last March the cost of installing broadband to HEC’s entire 1,700-mile system was projected at $120 million.
The project will be completed in phases, and the rate of completion will be contingent on the availability of grant funding and the number of members who subscribe.
“A good reason to go slow with the project in general is there’s more and more grant money becoming available for rural broadband,” Sandlin said. “We should give that time to develop. For example, the state just awarded $10 million (for broadband providers), and there’s also money from the FCC’s Connect America Fund, and some other opportunities might come from the Appalachian Regional Commission. We’re certainly going after as many grants as possible to help us reduce the cost of construction.”
Sandlin added, “The bottom line is we can’t build the entire area at one time. We serve 30,000 customers, and it’s going to take a tremendous amount of work to get service available over this period of time. Essentially about five years. We just ask that people be patient, and we’ll provide updates soon and communicate with customers who live in areas where we’re going to start construction sooner.”
As for the cost to members, that’s still to be determined.
Why is broadband needed?
Approximately 40 percent of HEC’s members have no access to the Internet.
Many rural Hawkins County communities can’t get a cell phone signal, much less Internet. Residents in and around Surgoinsville lost their Internet service when the provider there suffered a system breakdown a few years back that was never repaired.
Communities that don’t have broadband are limited in many ways, and Sandlin said the lack of broadband is probably the No. 1 challenge for electric co-ops and their members.
It creates a technology burden, hampers economic growth and limits educational opportunity for children who grow up in those households.
Lack of broadband also reduces quality of life. People can’t research health care or medial treatment options, pay their bills online or do online shopping. Broadband is also needed to assist in job searches, for higher education and training. And, of course, it’s a major source of entertainment.
Do HEC’s members want broadband?
Of those who attended the HEC member meeting in Rogersville last March, 94 percent said they would be willing to sign a petition or pledge to be a broadband user.
But only about 56 percent said they would be willing to pay $75 or more per month for the service.
Only 24 percent would be willing to pay for the service if it were $100 or more.
What does broadband service entail?
Sandlin says HolstonConnect most likely will provide digital video service, high-speed Internet service, local and long-distance telephone services and gigabit data services.
Information about such services will be released as details become available.
The services provided by HolstonConnect will help to improve education, economic development and communication throughout Hawkins and Hamblen counties.
Additionally, the fiber-based system will enable smart grid technology, making it more efficient, providing members additional control of their energy usage, and allowing two-way data flow.
As technology, such as vehicles, batteries and distributed generation, are added to the electric grid, Holston Electric Cooperative will be better able to meet the needs of members.
“One of the most important components of the cooperative principles is concern for the community, and these services will improve the quality of life for our membership,” Sandlin said.
With a $75 million annual operating budget, HEC provides electric service in Hawkins and Hamblen counties, covering 525 square miles with more than 50,000 poles holding up its 1,700 miles of line.