Cheatham County Exchange

Dickson Electric System holds town hall meeting about proposed broadband internet service

Dickson Electric System General Manager Darrel Gillespie gives a presentation last Friday about the utility’s proposed new broadband internet service.SHARON ALICE LURIE

Dickson Electric System General Manager Darrel Gillespie gives a presentation last Friday about the utility’s proposed new broadband internet service.SHARON ALICE LURIE

Dickson Electric System General Manager Darrell Gillespie presented DES’ progress of its proposed broadband internet service at a “town hall” meeting last Friday night at Dickson City Hall.

“We look at it like a utility. It’s something you just about have to have today. It’s extremely critical,” Gillespie said.

Prior to the meeting, Gillespie said DES had asked its customers to complete a survey to gauge support of the internet upgrade. According to Gillespie, of the 3,852 respondents, 99% said they were in favor of the DES service expansion.

If approved, the broadband service will operate under a separate division from the electric side. The revised estimated cost to get the broadband division up and running is $67.8 million. Gillespie said the funding will come through bonds, interdivisional loan, grant funding, and revenues.

The interdivisional loan will be made to the new broadband division for $9.25 million and repaid in 20 years at 4% interest. Any revenue generated from the broadband division will be invested back in the system, according to Gillespie, who also noted that the electric division is debt-free.

The project completion is estimated at four years. Broadband internet will be made available to anyone within the DES service area.

DES offers electric service to 22,000 residential customers in Cheatham, Dickson, Hickman, Houston, and Montgomery counties. The DES service area in Cheatham County includes the majority of everywhere south of the Cumberland River.

Gillespie said DES has received resolutions in support of the project from Cheatham County and Kingston Springs and Pegram.

By law, the utility has to wait 14 days after the town hall meeting for the public to provide additional comments, Gillespie said. The Board of Public Utilities is scheduled to meet on Tuesday, April 5 to vote on a resolution to allow DES to form a separate broadband division. If approved, the project will then go before the Dickson City Council for approval.

When the project is completed, DES estimates it will have approximately 12,000 broadband internet customers.

Last year, Comcast completed a $3.3 million, one-year project to expand the reach of its network to parts of Cheatham and Dickson counties through a partnership with the State of Tennessee.

As a result, more than 2,000 homes and businesses now have access to 1.2 gigabit-speed broadband service and Comcast Business commercial services.

Twelve members of the public spoke about the proposed service at the town hall meeting, though none said they were from Cheatham County.

The majority spoke in favor of DES providing broadband, but many expressed concerns about what they perceived as a lack of transparency and delays about DES’ process.

Cumberland Furnace resident Roni Warner said both she and her husband work in Nashville, and the lack of high-speed internet in her area eliminated the ability to telecommute. She said that she has reached out to numerous internet providers, such as AT&T and Comcast, but was told they wouldn’t provide service to her home because it’s not cost-effective.

Warner said she is unable to even get landline service at her home. When she has tasks requiring a high-speed connection, she said she has to travel to either Clarksville or Dickson to use hotspots there.

During the pandemic, she said she had to bring her children to Nashville with her to work just so they could complete their schoolwork.

“Everyone should have options. I don’t want an end date. I want a start date,” Warner said.

Several members of the public expressed concern that their neighbors just across the border in Montgomery County were able to get broadband access quickly through Cumberland Electric Membership Cooperative. Gillespie said that because DES is a government utility, by state law it has to meet more stringent requirements and complete more steps in getting approved for broadband than private, member-owned electric cooperatives like CEMC.

Slayden Mayor Diane Harrison also shared disappointment with not having a firm start date. Harrison said the big issues for her constituents are not being able to work from home and difficulties for homeschooled students and students attending classes remotely to complete assignments.

Dickson County resident Ray Ledger Jr. said one part of his street has service from Comcast, but he was told by Comcast that if he wanted lines run to his home, he would have to pay Comcast $10,000-$12,000.

Better Tomorrow in Tennessee Director Dakota Gordon was the lone voice of dissent from the public. He said his advocacy group speaks against government overreach and sees the DES service expansion as a government entity unfairly competing with the private sector and “a direct attack on the free market that Tennesseans cherish.”

“We oppose these efforts and would point out that the track record of Dickson Electric in this endeavor has left citizens poorly served to this very day.

“The fact is rural broadband can be a reality in Dickson County. We saw that some private providers just last week submitted proposals outlining their intention to deliver service faster, and potentially cheaper than this government expansion. Thus, we see DES’ interest in growing government as unnecessary and encourage municipal leadership to work with the private sector – rather than against it – to get the job done fast, and effectively.”

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