Tennessee's work to expand broadband in rural areas highlighted

Broadband connectivity tile / photo courtesy of Getty Images

Even as a resident in Tennessee's wealthiest county, Gov. Bill Lee's cattle farm in Williamson county still lacks access to high-speed broadband connections, similar to most of the rural parts of Tennessee.

Lee, who allocated $20 million in his first year as governor to broadband expansion in rural areas, is proposing to boost such state support to $25 million next year to help address the digital divide between areas with broadband service and those left behind.

"Maria, maybe this will be the year we finally get broadband on the farm," Lee quipped to his wife and first lady, Maria Lee, during his State of the State address when he proposed the additional funding for rural broadband.

Since Tennessee created the Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Grant program in 2017, the state has allocated $45 million to support broadband deployment in unserved areas of Tennessee. The program provides grants of up to $2 million to Internet Service Providers to pay up to half the cost for fiber line extensions or other technologies to bring faster internet connections in areas without broadband service.

photo Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee delivers his State of the State Address in the House Chamber, Monday, Feb. 3, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Crystal Ivey, broadband director for the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, concedes that the state money, though significant and able to leverage matching money from telecom providers, still isn't enough to extend high-speed internet service to every home and business in the state.

"It's not nearly enough to meet the need, which we know is billions of dollars," Ivey said. "In the first three years of the grant, we had $190 million of grant requests for $45 million of funding so clearly we are showing there is a demand for this kind of funding and the providers in these communities are seeking this kind of assistance in getting service out to this underserved areas."

Even though the state program isn't able to meet all of the needs in Tennessee, a new study of government assistance programs across America highlights Tennessee's program among nine states that have developed effective broadband initiatives to advance high-speed internet services.

"These states are doing things well with programs that other states can learn from," said Kathryn de Wit, manager of the broadband research initiative at The Pew Charitable Trusts, which released a 48-page analysis of state programs Wednesday. "What's clear from our research is that states taking on this issue with funding matters. It's a national problem that is felt at the local level and it requires every level of government cooperating and collaborating together in order to close the digital divide."

Nationwide, the Federal Communications Commission estimates at least 21 million households and businesses lack access to broadband services. The Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations estimated in a 2017 report that connecting the up to 160,000 unserved homes in areas of Tennessee ineligible for funding through the FCC's Connect America Fund would cost $125 million to $799 million.

"More and more policy makers are seeing why broadband really matters," de Witt said. "This isn't something seen as a "nice to have" anymore or just about Netflix and cat videos, as important as those may be for some. What we increasingly hear from policy makers is the concern over what their communities are missing out on by not having high-speed reliable broadband with economic development, workforce development, healthcare, education and opportunities for people to age in place."

Ivey said the state will soon announce its third year of funding recipients in its broadband grant program and Lee is pushing for a 25% jump in funding in fiscal 2020-21.

In the first two rounds of its grant-matching program, Tennessee was able to invest $25 million and leverage $30 million from the private sector, but it received more than $128 million in grant requests. Ivey said the state program is designed to work closely with other broadband support programs from the federal USDA, Appalachian Regional Commission and Federal Communications Commission along with telephone, cable and rural telephone cooperatives that currently provide broadband service.

"They are the ones with their boosts on the ground pulling the infrastructure," Ivey said.

Tennessee is not only trying to expand access to broadband but also the number of users. Libraries in rural areas are getting a share of the grant money for digital literacy and instruction and some libraries have added hot spots.

"I think increasing the digital literacy of an area directly impacts the investment that we are making in that infrastructure," Ivey said.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.