By Noble Sprayberry
Broadband speeds lag in much of the nation, particularly in rural areas. Highland members, however, now enjoy fast fiber connections right to their homes or businesses.
And speed makes a difference. The Federal Communications Commission says that many broadband plans around the nation fail to keep pace with online services rich in data, graphics and video.
Meanwhile, Highland just upgraded all Internet packages — at no additional charge. Plans now have download speeds of 12.5 Mbps, 25 Mbps and 50 Mbps.
The speed bumps come at a time when half of all rural Americans lack access to at least a 25 Mbps service.
Highland’s conversion to fiber was a milestone not only for the cooperative, but also for the region. And the move to fiber will allow creation of faster plans if future Internet-based services demand greater performance.
A commitment to tomorrow
Five years ago, Highland started the $66 million project, using the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to secure about 75 percent of the money through a grant and the remaining 25 percent as a loan.
The project offered unique challenges for a cooperative committed to providing the same level of service to every member, which totals about 16,000 homes and 1,800 businesses.
Highland employed about 275 contractors, and also relied on its own staff, to build the network.
Crews laid more than 2,000 miles of new fiber optic cable. And they installed 15,000 boxes required to connect a home or business to the network.
The rural equation
Few telecommunications companies make the decision to build modern fiber networks in sparsely populated areas like Scott, Morgan and McCreary counties.
For every new mile of fiber, Highland spent an average of $20,000, says Jared Carson, Highland’s chief operations officer. “Our geography makes construction hard and expensive, because we’re going through some rugged terrain,” he says.
Also, the distance between houses and businesses creates a challenge. The 2010 U.S. Census identified the number of housing units — everything from a standalone house to an apartment — in each county. Morgan County, Tennessee, and McCreary County, Kentucky, have about 17 homes per square mile. In Tennessee, Scott County’s housing is slightly denser at just more than 18 homes per square mile.
Comparatively, Cumberland County, Tennessee, which includes the small city of Crossville, has about 41 homes per square mile. And Knox County, home to the University of Tennessee, has about 371 homes per square mile.
Each of those homes represents a potential customer on the network. This is why profit-driven corporate telecommunications providers are eager to serve cities like Knoxville, but not rural areas. “If you’re only covering 17 customers, as opposed to 370, per mile, it’s difficult to get a return on your investment,” Carson says.
However, the grant and loan program funding Highland’s rollout made extending the rural fiber network possible, he says.
“Our customers and their families enjoy a rural lifestyle,” Carson says. “We’re proud to finish this fiber project so they don’t have to give up high-quality Internet service because of where they live.”