Rural East Tennessee counties work to increase broadband internet access

WARTBURG (WATE) – In his State of the State message Monday night, Gov. Bill Haslam is expected to discuss his plan to expand broadband access to rural areas. More than 700,000 people do not have minimum standards to broadband service, but reliable broadband is changing lives in Morgan County, making a big difference for students in the way they study and learn.

A little more than six years ago, internet access for rural Scott and Morgan counties was little more than dial-up speed. Today, many rural areas in East Tennessee still remain without high speed internet, which can be attributed to population, location or the high costs to build the required infrastructure. Highland Telephone Co-op faced the same obstacles then decided it was time to cross the digital divide.

Tenth graders in Jonathan Schoolcraft’s Algebra II class at Wartburg Central High in Morgan County have an advantage over kids who sat in this classroom a few years ago. Their computers are connected to high speed internet.

“To me the difference is one, I think it helps kids increase their learning and I think kids are achieving more at our schools,” said Schoolcraft.

Related story: Haslam announces bill to increase broadband access for rural Tennessee

Every high school and middle school student in Morgan County has new computers that are tied to broadband service, meaning no more text books – saving money and making learning better.

“It makes it a lot easier to do all the school work that we need in class. It makes a lot more things accessible being on the internet,” said student Maggy Oplinger.

“We’re in a poor rural area and children have access to things that every other student has gotten in the United States and the world,” said Director of Schools Ronnie Wilson, adding that not very long ago, that wasn’t the case.

Mark Patterson of Highland Telephone Co-op pointed out 2,700 miles of heavy black fiber optic cables that provide voice, video and data and stretch through three counties.

“Luckily in 2010 under the American Recovery Act, we were able to get a combination of a loan/grant for $67 million that allowed us to build out our service area,” said Patterson.

For about five years, plus, crews strung fiber optic cables through Morgan and Scott counties in Tennessee and McCreary County, Kentucky. The co-op took out a $17 million loan for over 25 years.

Patterson says Highland Co-op offers internet broadband service equal to any major city in the country right now. For patients at the Morgan County Medial Center, radiology reports can be sent within minutes and read by doctors miles away, making a difference to people worried about their medical condition.

Related story: Gov. Haslam to give State of the State address Monday

“The speed is incredible for us right now. It makes everything we do more efficient and more effective for our patients,” said Morgan County Medical Center Administrator Theresa Brock.

The high speed internet feed that is tied in and distributed here is a huge selling point to the rural communities it serves.

“We are ready to go in Scott County. We are ready to recruit industry, our students are in good shape because every home and business can have fiber,” said Stacey Kidd with the Scott County Chamber of Commerce.

The schools here are sold on broadband internet so are many businesses that depend on fast internet speed. The challenge will be bringing broadband to thousands of others in East Tennessee who remain on the other side of the digital divide.

Expanding broadband is not new to Tennessee and has been hotly debated in the past. By offering $45 million in grants and tax credits to service providers, Gov. Haslam’s broadband plan, which he is expected to outline Monday night, may help ease the cost of expanding the service to rural areas of the state.

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