Within two years Lyon County will likely be nearly blanketed with more reliable and faster internet. The fiscal court moved closer to that goal Thursday when members voted to negotiate contracts with two firms to install fiber optic cables.
The court divided the county into two zones, A and B, and authorized the internet team — comprised of Judge-Executive Wade White, County Attorney Lee Wilson and Third District Magistrate Jeff Fowler — to negotiate the contracts with Pennyrile Electric in Zone A and Fastnet in Zone B. Zone A covers all of Lyon County south of Eddy Creek, which Pennyrile already serves with electric power. Zone B comprises the rest of the county north of Eddy Creek. Pennyrile’s proposal requested $500,000 in financial assistance and Fastnet asked for $1 million.
A third proposal from Conexon on behalf of Kenergy didn’t include a clear timeline, a clear financial request and neither a start nor a finish time frame.
“We were interested in a real plan that had actual start dates,” White said.
The county received $1.594 million from the American Rescue Plan Act passed in March. And the fiscal court opted to spend all of it to assist providers to install a fiber optic internet network. White believes the county will receive further federal grants from the $3.5-trillion dollar bill now making its way through Congress.
“With the money we currently have we will be serving more than 2,000 residences with fiber internet,” White said. “I believe there are approximately 3,500 homes in the county outside the city limits. So that will be well over half the residents in this first round of funding.”
The two projects give White “almost a sense of relief” to finally have a plan that can bring reliable internet to most of Lyon County.
“Over the years we were faced with two major issues: 1) We didn’t have enough money to entice companies to (install) internet, and 2) if we applied for a grant who would be willing to run fiber?” he said. “COVID 19 changed a lot of this and forced some of the electric companies to come to the table to help their customers. I’m very proud of Pennyrile Rural Electric for deciding to get into the fiber business. The other part that changed was Fastnet purchased equipment to run fiber and wants to be a provider in our county. So finally, after battling this uphill war for years, the perfect storm of money and companies wanting to serve Lyon County came together, and we were ready to pounce on the opportunity because we have planned for years.
“I allowed myself about one hour of celebration on this, but it’s really back to work finding grants now to fill the gap ... I won’t be fully satisfied until we have fiber internet out in the county to everyone who wants it. I am happy that I believe we have finally found the path to provide internet to the majority of those in the county coming very soon.”
The cities of Eddyville and Kuttawa received $659,000 and $173,000 respectively in grant money and could use it for similar projects if they choose.
“There are several federal grants out there right now, and we’ve got a team … who is going to be helping us,” White said, citing Amanda Davenport, executive director of the Lake Barkley Partnership and the Pennyrile Area Development District staff. “We will work with whatever counties that are actually laying fiber in the county. We’ll do everything we can to continue to get grant money to expand fiber optics in the county.”
Fastnet installed wireless internet here in 2012 when Lyon County received a $250,000 federal grant from an earlier program. “Of course wireless can only reach those it can basically see from the towers,” White said. “We were limited but they were able to connect about 800 people in Lyon and Caldwell counties. Over the past year Fastnet has made some important advances as far as fiber. “… They’ve put down a lot of investment … and they have actually laid fiber on Elkhorn Tavern, Shelby Road, Lisanby and Hillside Trail.”
Mike Calvin, manager of network operations for Fastnet, outlined his company’s plan. In the last year, the company has started replacing its copper cables in some areas with fiber.
“We’ve never stopped growing our network,” Calvin said. “Over the years we’ve realized the limitations of wireless … whether tree growth or topography, we have to look at options. … We started our first fiber project in the county about a year and a half ago on Hillside Trail.
“We used that as a pilot program to test whether we can put it in the ground in this topography. Since then, we’ve added two additional areas in the county with fiber, and we are seeing incredible uptake in people wanting the fiber technology.”
A few customers who were selling their homes said in their listing that the home has fiber optics, Calvin said. Home builders also have asked about whether certain areas have fiber internet. The federal funding allows fiber optic service to be installed in areas previously unserved by any internet provider. About 1,710 homes will be served by the first round of funding. Fastnet’s proposal covers a 24-month period. Calvin projected construction will start within weeks of the contract signing with the county.
Alan Gates, president/chief executive officer of Pennyrile Electric, expressed his appreciation to the court and said it was wise to break the installation down into sections.
“We are a co-operative; our interest is serving our members; we’ve served that portion of Lyon County for over eight years,” he said. “We started hearing from our members five to six years ago. And that started putting pressure on us to provide internet, and the reason is we have the pathway to all these areas. We own the (electric) lines. We already have a relationship with the people.”
When the co-op began considering what it would take to install an internet system they learned the cost ran more than $100 million.
“When you’re looking at a two or three customer per mile area … it just doesn’t make financial sense for us as it doesn’t for other (providers) or they would already be there. So we had to have some help. It’s going to take partnerships to make this work. It’s going to take grant money to make this work. So we started talking to some of the other county judges. We needed Christian, Trigg and Todd because that’s where our initial fiber backbone was. We had to get those folks on board so we could build the backbone out to Lyon County, Logan County and Caldwell County. This is sort of our wheelhouse.
“The timing is right to get this done. I think there are going to be more grant opportunities within the next three or four years than we’ve ever seen.”
Preliminaries for the timeline of how this will unfold for Zone A in Lyon County are ongoing now.
“We are in the process of doing an engineering study expected to be finished by December,” Gates said. “After the study is completed the co-op will start building the backbone which is expected to take a little less than a year. The backbone is what we will branch off of to actually install the fiber to the homes. Pennyrile will extend that backbone into Lyon County … for which the co-op will spend $11 million, not including what the co-op will match dollar for dollar from each county.”