Developer bypasses restrictions on rural Internet expansion

Authored By chloe.morrison

Developer John “Thunder” Thornton has launched gigabit-speed Internet service for residents of Jasper Highlands by creating his own Internet service provider called Hi-Tech Data LLC.  

Thornton orchestrated and privately funded the strategy because he’s an avid proponent of the recently defeated municipal broadband expansion bill by state legislators in Nashville.


“From day one, we knew how critical of a priority it was for Jasper Highlands’ residents to have access to Internet to be able to keep up with the demands of modern-day living. Today’s Internet is not a luxury, it is a critical necessity, and regardless of whether my development has it or not, I am completely committed to doing whatever I can so that every rural area in this state eventually gets the service.”

Source: John Thornton

The recent legislative defeat would have allowed for high-speed Internet expansion in rural areas. The legislation would have allowed EPB and other similar municipal providers in the state to expand to areas they aren’t currently authorized to serve. Proponents blamed lobbyists from big corporations for the defeat. Click here for more on that. 

So Thornton went across state lines and worked with North Alabama Electric Cooperative, along with assistance from Tennessee-based Sequachee Valley Electric Cooperative, to bring the gig to Jasper Highlands’ mountaintop residents.

Alabama is currently one of 31 states whose legislation does not restrict municipal broadband expansion. 

Thornton said that lack of support for rural broadband expansion is creating educational and economic disadvantages. 

“Over the past few years, I’ve had very little confidence in the majority of our state legislators supporting rural broadband expansion, which, in essence, is stifling our children in getting a quality education and creating an unfair disadvantage for existing business growth, along with our overall economic development efforts,” said Thornton, whose company first laid the infrastructure for fiber to be ready once it became available. 

Thornton and his team at Thunder Enterprises, developers of homes and master-planned communities across the country, worked closely with North Alabama Electrical Cooperative and connected with their service 5 miles away at the Alabama-Tennessee state line.

As part of the network, Thornton created Hi-Tech Data as a privately owned commercial Internet service provider for the Jasper Highlands community. 

The project has taken more than a year’s time and cost just under $500,000-compared to the $1.3 million originally quoted by AT&T for the undertaking, officials said in a news release. 

More information

Monthly rates for Hi-Tech Data’s services are comparable in price to EPB at $69 for 100 Mbps and $79 for 1 gig, and include unlimited data.

Thornton stressed that this new Internet service provider-currently the only provider in the area- supports the future expansion of its services to neighboring residents but also encourages competitors to enter the market in the region where a majority of communities are either unserved or underserved.

“Recognizing that regional economic development support is a win-win for everyone, we were more than eager to help Jasper Highlands with their connectivity,” North Alabama Electrical Cooperative CEO Bruce Purdy said in a prepared statement. “We would welcome the opportunity to work with more partners in bordering states. Fiber is the future.”

Michael Cunningham, a new Jasper Highlands resident who moved from Florida, said he made a significant investment in the development, and Marion County, by buying a home. 

“John Thornton completely understood the critical necessity of gigabit Internet service and had the fortitude to get it here,” he said in a prepared statement. “Without the high-speed service, which allows me to work remotely from my corporate headquarters in Bellevue, Washington, it would not have been possible for me to make the move.”

State Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, supported and advised Thornton when he first encountered roadblocks to broadband expansion into the area.

“John has been such a champion and tremendous statewide supporter for rural broadband,” Bowling said. “I am extremely pleased that he has been able to accomplish this, and I also want to thank North Alabama Electrical Cooperative for their efforts. Rest assured we are not done in moving this forward, and I hope my fellow legislators will see this as another example of why every rural area in Tennessee must have fiber for their future.”