Tennessee is doing rural broadband expansion right, Pew study says

Tennessee has become a leading example in connecting rural residents with broadband internet, according to a new Pew Charitable Trust study released.

The state was one of nine highlighted for making progress.

"Tennessee is doing several things right," project team member Kathryn de Wit said. "The state's grant program is noteworthy. It has built relationships with providers. It ensures that it's meeting technology not just for today but for the future."

In the group's research, de Wit said Tennessee's grant reporting requirement to update progress and 50% percent match from internet service providers also gave other states a footprint to follow.

"We know states are using similar activities," de Wit said. "But states are different and they have different challenges. So the responses to those challenges need to meet the needs. We know that states are learning. Broadband is foundational technology for just about everything we do in our lives. Many communities do not have access still. States matter and there's quite a bit of momentum with respect to broadband. We can and should look to the states."

What Tennessee has done

In 2017 — the year the Tennessee legislature passed the Broadband Accessibility Act — 13% of rural Tennesseans didn't have broadband. Through the act, then-Gov. Bill Haslam's administration funneled money into grants for providers to decrease that number.

The initiative provided $45 million spread across 95 counties for three years.

Then the legislature in 2018 loosened regulations to allow internet providers to partner with public utilities. When Gov. Bill Lee took office, he advocated for private businesses to fix the broadband issue but did see some need for the state to help with funding. In the Williamson County community where he lives, Fernvale, the majority of residents don't have broadband.

In his most recent State of the State, Lee proposed an additional $25 million investment in rural broadband in the 2020 budget.

"Maybe this will be the year we finally get broadband on the farm," he joked in his address.

Most recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently released $9 million in grant funding to Tennessee.

"We celebrated another huge step in executing on our mission of enriching our communities and the lives of our neighbors through reliable connections and passionate service," said William Bradford, United Communications CEO.

United and Middle Tennessee Electric Membership Cooperation have been partnering together to provide internet to rural areas since late 2018. The two benefitted from a loosening of regulations in 2018, and it set the duo up for applying for the USDA grant program.

"These folks deserve the quality of life that broadband provides and we are very excited to be the community-focused company to bridge the broadband gap for our rural neighbors," Bradford said.

Source: Tennessean, by Emily West

The East Tennessee Economic Development Agency markets and recruits business for the 15 counties in the greater Knoxville-Oak Ridge region of East Tennessee. Visit www.eteda.org

Published February 28, 2020