Erwin Utilities: Enhancing Broadband in Unicoi County

The town of Erwin, Tennessee is nestled in the mountains of Unicoi County (pictured above) and home to just over 6,000 residents. Though the area is abundant in undisturbed natural assets and access to major roadways, Unicoi is considered economically at-risk and has faced its fair share of challenges. After the coal-industry-related closure of a CSX rail yard in Erwin, around 300 jobs were lost—a devastating impact in a small town. Diversifying into new economic opportunities also faced a barrier in broadband access, with some areas struggling to access the internet due to speeds below the FCC’s 25/3 Mbps broadband benchmark.  

According to The Conservation Fund’s 2010 Sustainable Tourism Initiative Report , Unicoi County aimed grow their tourism and hospitality sector, leading to more jobs, and increased state and local tax revenue. In order to grow any sector in their economy, Unicoi County would need to attract businesses to locate there – which requires broadband. Another report by the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development stated “broadband is the most important differentiating infrastructure today and is critical to Tennessee’s economic competitiveness, businesses, and the social wellbeing of communities and residents. Moreover, education, healthcare, business operations, workforce training and e‐government applications all rely upon advanced broadband networks.” 

Access to Broadband

Several parts of Unicoi County have been without access to broadband Internet services, with many having access to one Internet provider. According to Connected Tennessee, in 2014 only 25% of Unicoi County residents have access to DSL. In the Temple Hill area, only two cable television providers have operated for over twenty years. The providers, however, left much of the areas without access to cable TV and reliable broadband access. 

With support from ARC’s POWER Initiative grant, Erwin Utilities (EU) took action to change this situation. EU installed 35 miles of fiber optic cable on an existing pole line so that fiber broadband service could reach business and residential subscribers in Temple Hill and Bumpus Cove, another underserved area. As a result, 30 businesses and 680 homes were connected to high-speed broadband service. This construction also put high-speed fiber optic cable within miles of the Flag Pond and Rocky Fork State Park, both of which serve as important draws for tourists.  

Unicoi County Hospital was also constructed in 2017 and received access to Erwin Utilities’ fiber optic system. This project helped Unicoi County’s hospital run more efficiently by providing access to reliable high‐speed broadband that is essential for their multi‐hospital network, and for telemedicine services, which became even more critical during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Learn more about the important role broadband plays in ARC’s investments to expand Appalachia’s critical infrastructure.