SPRING HILL, Tenn. (WKRN) — Surrounded by elected officials and electric workers, Gov. Bill Lee unveiled the largest grant award for rural broadband expansion in the history of the state of Tennessee Monday morning. 

Project Unite, spearheaded by United Communications, will embark on a multi-year effort to install new fiber lines throughout southern Middle Tennessee, connecting people to high-speed internet who had previously gone without in rural Middle Tennessee. 

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“Here at United Communications, and our partners Middle Tennessee Electric and Duck River Electric, we’re going to be investing almost $100 million in Williamson, Maury, Giles, Bedford, Lincoln, Moore, [Franklin] and Marshall counties and bringing broadband to so many Middle Tennesseans that still lack it,” said William Bradford, President and CEO of United Communications, at the event held in Spring Hill. “Over 14,000 Middle Tennesseans are going to get access to broadband who have never had it before thanks to this investment by the state, our counties and our companies.” 

More than $53 million was awarded to the telecommunications company, which will work in partnership with Middle Tennessee Electric and Duck River Electric to the unserved in the rural portions of the mid-state. 

“I have a belief that rural Tennessee matters,” Gov. Lee said during the announcement. “When I came into office, Executive Order No. 1 required every department in state government to come up with a strategic plan on how each of those departments could work in a way that would positively impact rural economies in the state.” 

Lee touted the significant effort of local leaders in securing the grant awards and Project Unite. 

“This is entirely a local effort,” he said. “There is funding from the state that’s actually matched with local funding from the partnership of Project Unite, but it is a partnership from the local effort. That’s how this happened. That’s what’s so exciting to me, is this is local leaders serving local people.” 

According to Stuart McWhorter, Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, Project Unite will impact 13,592 households and 247 businesses in the eight-county area. “That’s a significant amount of folks impacted by this.” 

Each project will be countywide, according to Bradford, who said the state allotted “about three years” for the company to complete all the fiber installation. He, however, believes his teams will be able to get people online in less time. 

“The state gives us about three years to complete the projects. We’re hopeful we’ll be installing customers in two years across the entire eight-county footprint,” he told News 2. 

The announcement is a welcome one for state leaders like Reps. Pat Marsh and Scott Cepicky, who represent Bedford and Maury counties, respectively. 

Marsh told News 2 he routinely fields calls from farmers who need assistance getting online due to lack of infrastructure. 

“It’s huge. I get calls at least once a week—sometimes multiple calls—wanting to know why they can’t get internet when we have all this federal and state money coming out,” he said. “I think it’s wonderful. It’s slow—too slow—but I’m so proud of the governor and the federal government for putting the money down here for us to use for internet. It’s just critical. 

Cepicky said the COVID-19 pandemic exposed a huge vulnerability in the education system when schools had to close in 2020 and send students home to learn. 

“What this grant allows us to do is to close that gap in education,” he said. “When we sent the kids home to learn, there were so many kids that didn’t have broadband access that you heard about police cars being set up all across the county to be hot spots. With this partnership we have, it’s going to allow us to use the government dollars partnering with private entities to make sure that we have enough coverage to expand in Maury County, to provide better educational outcomes for our kids.” 

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The grant will expand broadband access to 15,000 Maury countians, Cepicky added, which makes up about 13% of the total population of Maury County. 

“You’re talking a little over 12 or 13 percent of the population who was in the dark ages will now have access to the light,” he said.