DRMC offers to partner with Gov. Haslam’s rural Internet plan
By Jay Langston
Limited access to broadband Internet connectivity in rural middle Tennessee has prompted Duck River Electric Membership Corporation (DREMC) to create a solution for the future. This comes on the heels of Gov. Bill Haslam’s Thursday morning introduction of a bill to allow electric cooperatives to provide broadband.
This bill, officially known as the “Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act,” attempts to get broadband access to everyone. According to Haslam, 34 percent of our rural Tennesseans do not have broadband access, which represents about 725,000 people. When compared to the two percent of urban residents in the state without broadband access, a digital divide is apparent.
“Lack of high-speed, reliable Internet access has serious consequences for our members,” DREMC President and CEO Michael Watson said. “Education, healthcare, and job opportunities are all affected. While we want to be part of the solution, it is not our plan to become an Internet Service Provider (ISP).”
Watson further explained that DREMC has been studying a way to be a part of the broadband solution for over a year now. With the help of a consulting firm, residential members and businesses were surveyed and meetings with community leaders and stakeholders were held.
“Although DREMC concedes the critical importance of rural broadband connectivity and wants to see Tennessee electric co-ops allowed in the Internet Service Provider (ISP) business,” Watson remarked, “we will be guided by what’s best for our 73,000 members.”
Watson said DREMC is currently undertaking a multi-year project to build a fiber-optic loop to connect their offices, substations and other assets, improving operations for the co-op and service to their members. It is in DREMC’s plan to include excess fiber capacity over and above what the co-op will need.
“This would provide an opportunity to be part of the broadband solution by collaborating with ISPs, companies already invested and experienced in providing Internet service,” Watson explained. “Potentially an ISP could lease this excess fiber capacity, and then, in turn, reach rural customers in a cost-effective way. We believe this measured approach fulfills our mission of promoting economic development and enhanced quality of life for our members in the best possible way.”
“The multi-year plan is to connect our assets,” Carol Garrette, a spokesperson for DREMC said. “It does allow us to help provide a solution to provide broadband access to our users... through an Internet service provider.” Garrette further explained that DREMC would first run a main trunk broadband fiber cable between their Shelbyville office and their Lewisburg office, then continue on to their office in Columbia. Additional broadband capacity could be added to their company needs, which in turn could be leased by an Internet service provider that would in turn be responsible for running broadband cable to residences from the main trunk line.