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Pikeville, Fall Creek Falls, College Station, Nine Mile, Dunlap
In the battle over municipal broadband, it might be tough to find a TTA member closer to the frontline than Bledsoe Telephone. Based in Pikeville, Bledsoe serves a small sliver of Hamilton County, which it would stand to lose if Chattanooga EPB is allowed to expand beyond its city limits.
“It’s an unfair disadvantage to us,” says General Manager Charlie Boring, who took over for Greg Anderson in 2015. “They don’t pay taxes, and they borrow at lower rates than we can. There’s really no way to know where EPB would go.”
Whatever comes next, Bledsoe Telephone can rely on a long legacy of service and a quickly improving network infrastructure to keep their customers happy.
The cooperative was founded in 1953, starting with one exchange in Bledsoe County. “We just went on and grew from there,” Boring says.
In 1958, Bledsoe Telephone bought an exchange in Sequatchie County, establishing a significant portion of its two-county footprint that remains today. Over the years, the cooperative has added 20 to 30 unserved customers across the line in Hamilton County for a total of about 10,000 access lines.
Bledsoe also holds the distinction of being one of the first telcos in the state to get into the television business by deploying their own coaxial network in the 1980s. “We were one of the very few that were in it,” Boring says. “You could make a little money on it then.”
Today, Bledsoe Telephone is deploying fiber in Dunlap and Pikeville, primarily to businesses and key institutions. Residential fiber will follow, Boring says, with plans to build out the entire service area in 5 to 10 years. As with many telcos around the Cumberland Plateau, the rugged landscape is a challenge. Even after the buildout, 90 to 95 percent of the cooperative’s lines are aerial, meaning there’s plenty of maintenance to be done. “Everything we’ve got is rural, and it’s not easy getting through it,” Boring says. “We’re in some very remote communities, and we’re trying to get the network built to help them out. Some of these businesses are begging for more bandwidth, and we’re able to meet those needs now.”
As for municipal broadband expansion, Boring says the TTA is spot on with its stance. He believes municipal networks would cherry pick the choice areas with the highest rate of return, leaving the rural residents without access. “I think everyone in the state deserves to get broadband — that’s what we want at TTA,” he explains. “But it’s not Cleveland or Dunlap that’s unserved. It’s these people living out on the backroads that are unserved.”
Boring has met with local city councils and county commissions to explain the investment the telco has made in the area and outline the challenges of building a network. “We’re showing them exactly what we do because a lot of them don’t realize what it takes to have and maintain a network,” Boring says.
In the meantime, Boring and the staff at Bledsoe Telephone are working hard to make their services and network as strong as possible.
“We’re going to be moving a lot faster than we have been and getting a lot of things done,” Boring says.