JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – The BrightRidge Board of Directors and other utility officials said plans to expand fiber broadband internet in the city and Washington County are well ahead of schedule.
BrightRidge board members were briefed on the fiscal year 2023 budget totaling just under $25 million at a meeting Tuesday afternoon.
The provider’s original eight-phase expansion of its fiber internet system was set to be completed by June of 2026, but state grants and funding from the City of Johnson City have moved that to June 2024.
If the budget is approved, it could eventually bring high-speed internet availability to almost 50,000 homes and businesses across the city and county.
In the next year, fiberoptic lines will be installed providing high-speed internet to much of eastern Johnson City, completing Phase 5 and much of Phase 6.
Phase 5 would add 6,793 “passings” – available connections to homes and businesses in BrightRidge’s service area.
Phase 6 would add 3,319 passings.
BrightRidge announced the first part of Phase 5 is now available in an area near Oakland Avenue and Bristol Highway in Johnson City in a Facebook post yesterday.
Those phases were accelerated by $2.3 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding from the city.
“We’re really able to accelerate the build in the Johnson City area, especially those areas that might be higher poverty,” said BrightRidge Chief Broadband Officer Stacy Evans.
A budget forecast predicted phases 7 and 8 to be completed by June 2024, adding 6,959 total passings.
Phase 7 would provide fiber internet to the South Piney Flats and Winged Deer Park areas. Phase 8 would cover areas west of Johnson City in Washington County and an area south of Jonesborough.
The accelerated implementation of broadband also freed up funds for an extra expansion of fiber to Colonial Heights and Fordtown near Kingsport, and near Cherokee Road in south Johnson City.
That would be completed in fiscal year 2025 and add 5,643 total passings.
In fiscal year 2026, BrightRidge expects to improve its underground infrastructure for the area included in Phase 6.
In total, the expansion would provide 46,731 fiber passings by FY2026.
That adds over 20,000 passings to its current fiber reach of 23,605.
Not included in the budget is a potential grant sought by BrightRidge that would pay for additional fiber passings in rural Washington County.
The utility hopes to be awarded an Economic and Community Development grant from the state that would offer connections to 1,800 homes in the far reaches of the county.
The state would contribute $6.17 million, and the county would match $2.64 million if it is awarded.
Newly-appointed Washington County representative on the board Ronald Hite said his vision is to eventually expand service to the entire county.
“We would like to get all of those other areas, the remote areas covered, and without the grants we’d never be able to do that,” Hite said.
Hite said the BrightRidge service would be faster and cheaper than present options in those areas.
Evans said it will fundamentally change how people living in those rural areas use the internet.
“It allows you from home to telecommute for any job. It also allows you to remotely educate,” Evans said. “We did a poll of several hundred customers in these unserved areas, and the one thing that just about 100 percent of them said we need is options for telemedicine.”
If the grant is approved, Brightridge would be able to lay down additional line to cover 5,620 homes in rural Washington County.
Evans said they expect to hear back from the state on the grant application in August.
The budget also places a new priority on getting low-income households connected to the internet.
In the fiscal year 2023 budget, BrightRidge would join the Federal Communication Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program.
The FCC would provide credits allowing low-income applicants to receive 100/mbps internet at no cost.
“This gives them a chance to really get online, be able to use the internet for perhaps even small businesses or even work remotely from home, said BrightRidge board member and Johnson City Commissioner Jenny Brock.
Brock said Johnson City’s use of ARPA funds to accelerate broadband implementation was targeted at low-income areas.
She said it could make an impact on education in those low-income areas.
“Those children are going to be more school-ready because they have access to the internet at home,” Brock said. “This is going to make it so much better for them and help them get prepared.”
Brock said the ability to provide high-speed internet across the city makes it an even more attractive place to live.
With several developers wanting to build, Brock said the fiber access can bring in people working online.
“That is a key attraction for a large group of people,” Brock said. “I believe it’s going to help the economy. It’s going to help productivity in our city, and just the opportunity for new kinds of businesses to start that are internet-based.”
Evans said the fiber expansions are built with the capacity to handle 110% of all presently available connections, creating the opportunity for fiber to come to new neighborhoods.
The BrightRidge Board of Directors will formally approve the fiscal year 2023 budget at a meeting next week.