County Mayor’s Notes – October 6th, 2019: Broadband Report
If you are reading this, we likely have something in common – inadequate broadband service. You are not alone. In fact, you are likely in the majority of Cumberland Countians. Inadequate service stretches across all areas of the county including parts of the City of Crossville, Fairfield Glade, and Tansi. When I took office as your Mayor last year, I began investigating why we have these problems. I talked to individuals at the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development (TNECD), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), State and Federal Senators and Representatives, as well as providers including Frontier, Volunteer Electric Cooperative (VEC), Ben Lomand (aka Vol First), Bledsoe Telephone Company (BTC), Charter, Comcast, and Twin Lakes. I have even talked to the Tennessee Public Utility Commission (PUC) about the issue in our county.
During my research, I discovered we have a couple of problems that are holding us back from better service. These include our local telephone company (LEC) not making substantial investments in infrastructure to improve service, as well as inaccurate FCC 477 maps that are used to determine eligibility for State and Federal grants. The Cumberland County FCC 477 maps are flawed and create a barrier to successful provider applications.
Broadband is defined as 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speed. The FCC 477 maps are created from provider data that is not validated. In other words, the broadband providers tell the FCC what speed of service they provide and the FCC accepts the data without verifying accuracy. The maps are also based on census blocks, so if one household in the census block has adequate broadband service, the entire census block is marked as served with that speed. These factors make the maps here in Cumberland County highly inaccurate. For instance, the FCC 477 maps indicate that broadband is NOT available to 25,000 of the approximate 59,000 residents in Cumberland County. In contrast, Microsoft data indicates that 45,000 residents in Cumberland County do NOT use the internet at broadband speeds (https://news.microsoft.com/rural-broadband/). The Microsoft statistics are based on internal data of actual usage speeds and should be a more reliable indicator of broadband access. In other words, we have a real problem.
I discussed these problems with the FCC on two occasions. They recognize there is a problem but have no plan to address it. I also talked with the TNECD’s Broadband Division about this issue as their grants use this data for eligibility as well. They informed me they would accept alternate data that proved service did not meet what is indicated in the FCC 477 maps. That is when I decided to do the online broadband survey you may have heard about that is discussed in more detail below.
The TNECD Broadband Division has also changed the minimum threshold to apply for grants from 10 Mbps download speed to 25 Mbps. This was extremely important for Cumberland County as it made many more areas in Cumberland County grant eligible. You may have noticed that no grants were applied for in the previous cycle. That is the main reason.
Grants are awarded based on points accumulated on an application. Now that Cumberland County is eligible to apply for larger areas, we need to score as high as possible in order to receive grant funding. Additional grant points are awarded for areas with 10 Mbps service or less, and surveys can be used to offset the FCC 477 maps. Gaining these grant points matters.
With a plan to improve grant eligibility, I wanted to increase provider interest in Cumberland County, so I began to meet with them. The reaction was a bit guarded at first, as is to be expected. After several meetings throughout the past year, some providers see the need and want to help. I have been told that Cumberland County is unique in Tennessee with our type of broadband problem. During a recent meeting, one of the providers stated that everywhere he goes he hear complaints about broadband. After learning of our issues, talking with many individuals, and seeing survey responses, he then stated that the people in Cumberland County are fed up. He gets it. He understands.
I was compelled to conduct my online broadband survey due to the volume of service complaints received by my office and the inaccuracy of the FCC 477 maps. Participants were instructed to test their speeds online via a webpage and to enter the results on the county website.
Figure 1 shows the GIS mapped results from the online survey. The data clearly indicates we have a county-wide problem. My thanks go out to Rob Harrison for his assistance in getting the survey results mapped!
Approximately 1,500 households, a statistically significant number, responded to the online survey. As mentioned earlier, broadband is defined as 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds. Of those respondents claiming service provided by Frontier, approximately 99% reported less than 25 Mbps download speed, 85% reported less than 10 Mbps, 52% reported less than 5 Mbps, and 28% reported less than 3 Mbps download speed. Speed tests rely on many factors and can sometimes be inaccurate, but the data received seemed very consistent among those choosing to respond.
It can take $20,000 – $30,000 per mile or more to run fiber optic cable. That cost is one reason that grant funding is needed. Without grant funding we will continue to have poor service here in Cumberland County. One grant application has already been submitted by Ben Lomand to the USDA for a ReConnect grant in the eastern portion of Cumberland County near Crab Orchard. Ben Lomand worked hard on this grant but it is very competitive.
Currently, Ben Lomand and BTC are actively working on grant applications for TNECD Broadband Grant funds. The BTC grant is for the southern portion of Cumberland County in the Vandever/Breckenridge area. There are up to 836 homes that would be served. Ben Lomand is working on a grant in the northern portion of Cumberland County on Highway 127. This grant would serve over 1,500 homes.
People often ask me why I’m not forcing providers to service to their home with broadband, or why their area is not in one of the grant areas. The truth is, I have no input in the decisions of where the providers wish to extend service. In fact, my home is not located in any of the grant application areas. Cumberland County is the fourth largest county by land mass in the state of Tennessee at 681 square miles, and the 23rd largest by population. We didn’t get into this situation overnight, and we won’t get out of it overnight, but we finally have providers that are interested in expanding their services here!
These grants are just the beginning, but we must do all we can to make sure they are awarded. If the grants are not funded, the work to expand will not get done. Public support is a large part of the grant points. Your support matters, so if you received a survey in the mail, fill it out. If there is a community meeting in your area, be sure to attend. Let’s work to get this problem fixed!
I am not the only one working on this issue for Cumberland County. I want to thank Tennessee Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton and State Senator Paul Bailey for working on this issue, as well. US Senators Marsha Blackburn and Lamar Alexander, and US Congressman John Rose have supported the USDA ReConnect grant application. It will take everyone to ensure Cumberland County gets the broadband service we deserve.
It is a privilege to serve as your Mayor and an honor I do not take lightly. I take the issues we have seriously, and I will continue to do so.
Cumberland County Mayor