Much of the news covering the FCC’s decision not to appeal the Sixth Circuit’s verdict in North Carolina and Tennessee has painted a disingenuously gloomy picture for the future of municipal broadband. However, the small city of Erwin, Tennessee provides a glimpse of hope in the midst of confusion.
Erwin, a small community of 6,000 people, has managed to fight the odds and build its own network despite Tennessee restrictions and rulings. Thanks to a collaborative program called Cool & Connected, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Utilities Service, EPA’s Office of Sustainable Communities, and the Appalachian Regional Commission, the “Little Gig City” will remain on the municipal broadband map. The city started incrementally building its network in 2014, while leasing out its excess electrical capacity in order to prevent taking on debt throughout the project. The network will continue to operate, despite the Sixth Circuit ruling due to its selection by the Cool & Connected Program.
The program is a part of the EPA’s Smart Growth efforts. The program aims to help rural communities revitalize their towns and diversify their economies through the use of broadband service. Network access allows these otherwise rural areas in Appalachia to attract visitors and thus investment. It involves a long application process, but if selected, the town will welcome a team of experts who specialize in developing sustainable strategies. The team will create a step-by-step action plan for developing “walkable, connected, economically vibrant main streets, and small town neighborhoods that improve health and the environment” through the use of a broadband. The EPA’s Smart Growth website page provides a surplus of general resources for small rural towns and American Indian Tribes— many of which discuss the importance of broadband connectivity in efforts towards economic development while maintaining environmental protection.
Announced in August of 2016, the town of Erwin is one of 10 towns selected by the program. The others include: Haleyville, Alabama; the towns of Portsmouth and Zanesville, Ohio; Clarion and Curwensville, Pennsylvania; Jonesville and Pennington Gap, Virginia; and Bluefield, Weirton, and Williamson, West Virginia.
While you may not have heard of Erwin or any of these other towns before reading this blog post, through new access to high-speed connectivity, the Cool & Connected program hopes that you just might find yourself in a “Little Gig City” one day.