After a landslide vote of approval, Joe Wheeler Electric Membership Cooperative began work this week to bring high-speed fiber-optic internet service to customers in Lawrence and Morgan counties.
JWEMC authorities said the co-op is entering the engineering and project-planning phase after 6,750 members voted yes for the program. A total of 7,210 members cast ballots, JWEMC Director of Communications Michael Cornelison said.
“This is a really encouraging result. It lets us know we’re headed in the right direction,” he said.
JWEMC General Manager George Kitchens said the co-op should receive a quote on engineering within the next few weeks, and then it will take 60 to 90 days for work to be done.
“After that, then we have to do bids for construction and materials, so it’ll be late next summer when we begin construction,” Kitchens said after announcing election results on Friday. “I think it’s entirely possible that a year from now, we will have some customers connected to the internet on our system.”
Kitchens said it should take about five years for every customer who wants the service to be signed up, and added that the engineering phase would allow the co-op to identify areas in each county that might be eligible for the service first.
“Our feasibility study indicated that we would connect 18 of our electric substations to the fiber grid during this first 12 months of construction,” he said. “If you happen to live along a road that has the big power lines that connect to the substations, there’s a chance that you’ll be given the opportunity to get service sooner than some other people.”
The co-op plans to offer consistent speeds of 200 megabytes per second to customers for $40 to $60 a month per household.
Kitchens said a next-step package plan for subscribers might be offered at 500 megabytes per second, and some customers might even be able to sign up for gig speeds.
“Chattanooga and Huntsville advertise as being ‘gig cities,’ we’re going to be ‘gig counties,’” he said. “I have a grandson that’s 14, and I’d love to see him come out of high school with the same access to information that the kids in those bigger cities have.”
The project is projected to cost between $95 million and $110 million to complete, and JWEMC authorities have estimated it will need 10,000 subscribers to break even.
Kitchens said the feasibility study projected the co-op would surpass the 10,000 needed subscribers, and based on election results and interest he has seen from the community, he is confident it will too.
“If we don’t, the good news is that we’re going to be building this in annual budget phases,” said Kitchens. “If we’re not getting the results we need, we can review what we’re doing well and not doing well and make some changes so that we do hit the targets by the end of the project.”