Saturday, February 29, 2020

Here's why this rural town desperately wants better internet

Written by Staff, Fairfield Citizen — About an hour east of Nashville, the scenic little town of Granville would love to become widely known as the “Mayberry” of Tennessee — a tourist destination for anyone seeking a quaint throwback to simpler times.

But the problem is the internet, and just how slowly it churns — if at all — for visitors, businesses and residents alike.

Like many rural areas of Tennessee, high-speed service hasn’t fully arrived in Granville or surrounding Jackson County. It’s the kind of situation that led a WPLN listener to bluntly ask:

“What about the tens of thousands of Tennesseans in rural areas who don’t have broadband internet service?”

A U.S. News report ranks Tennessee 42nd in the nation for broadband. Despite state and federal grants, the ranking hasn’t improved much. But Gov. Bill Lee has declared rural investment a priority. And a place like Granville — which relies heavily on tourism tax dollars — has a lot at stake.

So what does it take to close the gap on internet access? Granville provides one answer.

In August, officials announced a grant to help bring broadband to 447 houses and nine businesses.


There’s no mistaking Granville’s appeal. The community enjoys and celebrates its step-back-in-time vibe.

Perhaps best known as the birthplace of Al Gore Sr., the town’s current notoriety centers on the T.B. Sutton General Store.

Reopening in the heart of town in 2001 after major renovations, the general store hosts dinners and the live Sutton Ole Time Music Hour every weekend when musicians fill the space with the twang of fiddles, banjos and mandolins. The store has been listed as one of the 12 must-visit general stores in the South by Taste of the South magazine.

Thousands of visitors descend on the town each year. But many have been put off by the lack of access to the outside world, says civic leader Randall Clemons.

“It’s been a real challenge for us. Having 35,000-plus visitors a year and them basically arriving here and not having cell coverage and not having Wi-Fi,” he said.

Born and raised in Granville, Clemons left for about 30 years, eventually becoming CEO of Wilson County Bank and Trust. Since returning in 1995, he has served as one of the driving forces behind the town’s resurgence. He’s also the president of Granville Museum Inc., which helps undertake the seven major festivals that attract tourists.

Whether it’s the Cornbread and Moonshine Festival, the Granville Quilt Festival or Heritage Day, Granville offers a country aesthetic.

And all of this fits under the town’s branded identity as Tennessee’s Mayberry — styled after the quaint fictional town popularized on Andy Griffith’s 1960s TV show. Granville’s effort now includes the ongoing construction of a museum dedicated to Mayberry and to “I Love Lucy.”

The branding seeks to draw tourists to the sleepy town, which is nearly surrounded by the Cordell Hull Lake. (The lake itself draws a number of visitors every year as the marina continues its own resurgence.)

New lodging choices have been built, with tour buses beginning to shuttle visitors around to various sites.

“Jackson County is a depressed county and our tourism dollars have greatly helped that, and we think it’s going to continue to help as we take Granville to another level,” Clemons said. “Most people today don’t want to go anywhere that they don’t have cell coverage or broadband coverage.”


Granville has an average download speed that is 33.8% slower than the Tennessee average and 41.7% slower than the national average, according to a report from Broadband Now.

The proposed improvement comes from Twin Lakes, a telephone cooperative that services a number of communities throughout the Upper Cumberland. The company received an Appalachian Regional Commission Grant to cover $500,000 of the cost of expanding broadband.

Officials plan on bringing internet speeds of up to one gig to Granville. The project also includes Wi-Fi and better cell phone service for the area, with Twin Lakes supplying multiple cell boosters.

Yet even with the funding boost, Twin Lakes has found parts of the project difficult.

“We’re working incredibly hard on this but it’s incredibly expensive due to the topography,” said Lea Ann Gore, marketing and sales manager with Twin Lakes. “Fiber is expensive and we try to bury most of it, as it’s more reliable. But sometimes we can’t due to topography.”

Burying the cable allows for higher performance, Gore said, and also avoids things that could affect service, such as wildlife chewing on the cable.

Gov. Bill Lee has said he believes private companies could lessen the need for high-speed internet in Tennessee and increase economic impact.

“We have to make life in rural Tennessee sustainable for small businesses and people to live there,” Gov. Lee said during a September appearance in Cookeville. “We have to invest in rural way of life which includes healthcare (and) education. And one of the ways we most profoundly do that is through technology.”

Appropriations for the Broadband Accessibility Grant Program have doubled since 2018, rising to $20 million in the current fiscal year.

“If we have broadband in rural communities so we can utilize telemedicine in powerful ways, there are so many opportunities for us to provide access to quality healthcare to rural communities. But if you don’t have the technology there you can’t do it,” Lee said.

Gore, with Twin Lakes, reiterates Lee’s sentiment.

“Going forward, teleworking for rural working is going to be huge. We want Jackson County to be able to recruit businesses,” she said.

The project requires 51 miles of fiber to be installed to serve Granville, ultimately costing roughly $1.6 million. Gore said the work on the project should begin by the middle of this year and wrap before 2021.


For years, the volunteers who run the Sutton General Store told patrons about the best place to catch cellphone service: on the bridge that crosses over Cordell Hull Lake.

These days, they don’t have to send tourists on such a hunt.

That’s thanks to a few initial connection improvements. Twin Lakes put up towers on some of Granville buildings and cellphone signal boosters.

“We now have Wi-Fi all over the area where a visitor would be and all over the area of where our festivals are,” Clemons said.

So will visitors begin streaming content while they wait for the start of the famed Music Hour at the general store?

Clemons doesn’t think it will be that drastic.

“You can’t fight social media, and we’re big into social media as we find it’s a great way to promote ourselves. Anywhere you go today, somebody has their phone in their hand,” Clemons said. “But we don’t want to lose our identity. We want Granville to be a step back in time and be a small town that has preserved its story that people want to come to.”

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