State grants extend broadband to a fraction of underserved rural areas

David Callis, president of the Tennessee Electric Coop Association, speaks about broadband access at the Chattanooga Convention Center Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Tennessee is giving nearly $10 million to help utilities, phone cooperatives and cable TV companies extend high-speed internet service to parts of 13 Tennessee counties in the first year of a three-year program to boost rural broadband connections.

The state grants announced Friday will be matched with contributions from the internet providers to spur nearly $20 million of additional broadband investment. But the 5,000 households the grants will help comprise barely more than 1 percent of the estimated 422,000 households across Tennessee that don't have access to landline internet speeds that meet the FCC benchmark of high speed broadband, 25 megabits-per-second download/3 mbps upload.

The grants also funded only a fraction of the $66 million of requests received from 71 utilities and communications companies and co-ops that sought state funding under the Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act adopted by the General Assembly last year.

"In communities across Tennessee, broadband is an essential service that will increase economic investment and growth to help businesses, families and individuals thrive," Gov. Bill Haslam said in announcing the first year of grants under the three-year program. "With the assistance of these grants, underserved communities will now have access to broadband that will benefit not only the communities themselves, but the state as a whole. These grants are a step in the right direction for our state and will help Tennessee reach its full potential."

Where broadband grants are going:

* Aeneas Communications: $190,000 to serve parts of Hardeman County* Ben Lomand Communications: $1,025,000 to serve the Pocahontas Community in Coffee County* Comcast: $850,000 to serve parts of Tipton County* DTC Communications: $1,725,000 to serve parts of Smith and Wilson counties* Gibson Electric Membership Corporation: $1,353,148 to serve parts of Lake and Obion counties* Scott County Telephone Cooperative: $1,900,000 to serve Surgoinsville in Hawkins County* Sunset Digital Communications: $1,375,000 to serve parts of Claiborne and Hancock counties* Tri-County Fiber Communications: $1,350,000 to serve parts of Sumner and Trousdale counties* Volunteer First Services: $76,714 to serve the Sunset Ridge Community in Cumberland County

The grants were announced Friday, a week after the state unveiled its digital literacy grants to 52 libraries to help provide training classes on basic computer skills, along with funding for some devices and hardware.

The grant recipients announced Friday did not include any areas of Southeast Tennessee. But both Bledsoe Telephone Cooperative in Dunlap and Volunteer Energy Cooperative in Bradley County are beginning programs to extend broadband and faster internet service to some of their customers.

Last year's broadband accessibility act provided a total of $45 million in grants and tax credits over three years.

The act maintained the ban on municipal electric utilities such as EPB, which provided the first citywide gigabit-per-second service in the Western Hemisphere, from expanding outside their power service delivery area, even if requested by neighbors. But the act did open up broadband service to be provided by nonprofit electrical cooperatives.

David Callis, executive vice president and general manager of the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association, said Friday his group is "pleased that the state recognizes the vital role co-ops can play in the expansion of broadband.

"Modern healthcare, education and commerce depend on access to fast, reliable internet, and co-ops are uniquely positioned to bring this service to rural and suburban Tennessee," Callis said.

Contact Dave Flessner at or at 423-757-6340.