By Dave Ongie, News Editor
If you’re looking for silver lining around the dark cloud that is the COVID-19 pandemic, one was clearly visible last Thursday morning at BrightRidge headquarters.
Members of BrightRidge’s leadership gathered along with elected officials and other local leaders to announce a giant leap forward in access to high-speed Internet service in Washington County. As of Thursday, 28 high-speed free Public Wi-Fi locations were up and running, and fiber broadband service was available to previously unserved areas of Bowmantown and Pleasant Valley/Key Mills in Washington County.
The $3 million project was funded with $2.46 million from six Tennessee Emergency Broadband Grants, awarded in late August by the Tennessee Department of Economic & Community Development. The project was completed on time and on budget in just under four months.
“This is an exciting moment for us,” said Jeff Dykes, CEO of BrightRidge. “We have looked to apply for grants on many occasions to do things in our area, especially in our rural areas. Sadly, the event that brought about the opportunity to receive a grant was due to the pandemic.”
Indeed, the need for Washington County and Johnson City schools to go to virtual learning this fall was a driver behind BrightRidge’s grant request being approved. Dr. Bill Flanary, superintendent of Washington County Schools, said the lack of Internet access severely complicated efforts to teach students remotely.
Flanary held up a Chromebook used by students in the county and rattled off all of its features before bringing up the fatal flaw.
“What we found out is without Internet access, these expensive pieces of technology are useless,” Flanary said. “Today hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of kids who did not have Internet access now do, and from my perspective, that translates into hundreds and hundreds of students who now have daily, real-time access to their teachers where they didn’t have that before. And that’s huge.”
Research published earlier this year by the Quello Center at Michigan State University found major learning impacts for those students without broadband, including lower grade point averages, stunted digital skillsets and lengthier times required to complete homework.
Similarly, the Tennessee Department of Economic & Community Development found 17 percent lower wages for those without “baseline” digital skills, while the availability of telehealth services provided over the Internet lowered hospital admissions by 25 percent and hospital length of stay by 59 percent.
The project required installation of 64.92 miles of new fiber optic to serve 28 schools and community buildings in Washington and Sullivan counties as well as the communities of Bowmantown and Pleasant Valley/Key Mills. In addition to service equipment at each Public Wi-Fi location, the grant paid for fiber optic drops at every home in the unserved area.
By creating access to high-speed Internet, opportunities have been opened that go well beyond education. The pandemic has now created the opportunity for many people to work remotely from anywhere they choose to live, and Dykes is excited about the potential positive economic development ramifications that come with the increased access to high-speed Internet.
“We want Northeast Tennessee to be one of the most competitive areas for economic development in the future that we can be,” Dykes said. “We look at people moving from other areas, and we’re excited to see people moving to this area. We see people moving here now that are actually moving into the grant area, and they have Internet service that they can work from home.”
To access the free Public Wi-Fi system, customers can park at any of the listed facilities, pull up the connections tab on their laptop or mobile device, and click “Public Wi-Fi” to connect.
Under the terms of the grant awards, BrightRidge will provide free community Wi-Fi at 1 Gb capacity for at least 12 months, re-evaluating community conditions at that time. BrightRidge places the cost of the service at $268,464 annually.
Schools offering free Wi-Fi on the grounds include Science Hill High School, Indian Trail Intermediate School and South Side Elementary in Johnson City.
Further, three Sullivan County schools in the BrightRidge Broadband service area are provided with the service, including Miller Perry Elementary, Colonial Heights Middle School and Mary Hughes School in Piney Flats.
And, 16 Washington County school facilities also offer the service, including; Grandview Elementary, Gray Elementary, Lamar Elementary, Ridgeview Elementary, Asbury Optional High School, Fall Branch Elementary, Jonesborough Middle School, Midway Center, South Central Elementary, Daniel Boone High School, David Crockett High School, both the old and new Boones Creek Elementary schools, Jonesborough Elementary, Sulphur Springs Elementary and West View Elementary.
Community centers offering free BrightRidge Community Wi-Fi on the grounds include the Appalachian Fair Grounds in Gray, Bowmantown Ruritan, Limestone Ruritan, Leesburg Ruritan, Oak Glen Community Center and Telford Ruritan.