EAST ELLIJAY, Ga. – “We are extremely proud to partner with Ellijay Telephone Company to expand broadband access,” said U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development Georgia State Director Joyce White as she announced a $4.4 million investment grant into Gilmer County through ETC.
Holding a celebratory ceremony on February 7, 2020, ETC shareholders, administrators, and a group of employees were joined by numerous officials from Georgia’s State Government and the USDA to both announce the award and celebrate the accomplishment.
As a part of the USDA’s ReConnect Pilot Program, ETC’s application over the last year has “persevered,” as said by White during the ceremony. The grant they receive will provide $4.4 million to support the construction of 90 miles of fiber-optic cable infrastructure in Gilmer County.
Jason Smith, COO of ETC, said the service extension is going to be providing “1 Gig Fiber Broadband.” He went on to add, “The total project is estimated at $5.9 million, $4.4 [million] of that will be provided by the grant and almost $1.5 [million] is provided by ETC.”
The program is set to incorporate 2,159 households, two community facilities, and an Educational facility. Additionally, there have been 25 businesses and 24 farms pre-subscribed to the service.
House Speaker David Ralston spoke at the ceremony about the great need for better internet and high-speed broadband connections as the foundation of improvements in education, transportation, and healthcare. He noted key points like telemedicine and farming as specific examples. Ralston threw his support behind the application with a letter of support for ETC during the application process. He said he wanted to salute ETC’s efforts and called the program a part of efforts to revitalize rural Georgia.
State Sen. Steve Gooch also wrote a letter of support for ETC’s application. He spoke at the ceremony of the need for the internet’s infrastructure for industry and economic development as well. Gooch said attracting new businesses and industry are among the first question when companies scout new locations. He said questions about providers, speed, reliability, and hubs are always among the initial questions interested parties would ask.
Gooch also echoed Ralston’s words about education as he shared his experience from his travels around the state hearing from community leaders. He said they told him about families in their communities when kids were sent home with homework to be done online. Parents would have to drive the kids back into town to a library or business with wifi to complete their homework assignments. Gooch said responding to these challenges is easier when private companies partner with the public interests to achieve success. Gooch said, “This is one success story, but we need thousands of others just like it.”
Parts of those challenges include the costs of preliminary and ground-work of projects like this do not compare to the number of houses or facilities reached. ETC’s Jason Smith noted these challenges as he said the estimated costs of this project reach $65,000 per mile. He said, “When you consider that many of our most rural areas have less than five homes per mile, it is easy to see why a grant plays such a vital role in broadband deployment.”
Smith went on to say that the grant award is an early step in the project. With funding, he wants ETC to move forward quickly but said the project will not happen overnight. With an estimated timeline of five years to complete the expansion. However, Smith said that ETC is hoping to reach goals to reduce that time by one year if possible.
The ReConnect Program offers funding options through loans, grants, and combinations of the two in order to facilitate broadband deployment in “areas of rural America that don’t currently have sufficient access to broadband,” according to the USDA’s website and ReConnect Program Informational.
In March 2018, the USDA reports that Congress provided $600 million to them to expand broadband infrastructure and services in Rural America. On December 13, 2018, Secretary Perdue announced the rules of his ReConnect program and the loans and grants involved. They received 146 applications between May 31, 2019, and July 12, 2019, requesting $1.4 billion in total funding.
Additionally, Perdue announced in December 2019 that the USDA will continue ReConnect through another round of applications in 2020 and will fund another $550 million through the program.