Broadband plan would help rural counties

2/8/2017

More than one-third of Tennessee’s rural residents — totaling more people than live in the city of Memphis — do not have access to broadband internet services.

Gov. Bill Haslam has proposed addressing the broadband gap through tax breaks, grants, deregulation and education. His ambitious plan could expand access to 97 percent of the state’s population, according to Tennessee Economic and Community Development Commissioner Randy Boyd. Tennessee ranks 29th in the nation for broadband access, according to the state.

Broadband is crucial for economic development, health care and education, but service providers have not made it available in hard-to-reach rural counties with low populations. The cost of providing service in rural areas is prohibitive.

“From the farmer and the accountant in West Tennessee whose businesses are stifled, to the East Tennessee student who can’t complete her schoolwork at home, a lack of reliable internet access is preventing too many rural Tennesseans, rural communities and our state from reaching its full potential,” Haslam said in a statement.

Haslam’s proposal contains many of the recommendations outlined in a report released last month by the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, or TACIR. The TACIR report advised the state to work with the private sector, both for-profit and nonprofit organizations, to close the rural broadband gap.

If approved by the Legislature, the Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act would provide $45 million in grants and tax credits for service providers over a three-year period. Two-thirds of the funding would go toward grants for providers. Tax credits totaling $15 million would be an incentive for private providers such as AT&T and Comcast to expand into sparsely populated areas.

Haslam’s plan also would allow electrical cooperatives to offer broadband service. Electrical cooperatives also could form partnerships with nearby municipal services that already have a high-speed network. Presently, electrical cooperatives are barred from providing broadband access and city utilities cannot expand outside their current service areas.

“Our electrical cooperatives serve nearly two-and a- half million Tennesseans and they’re uniquely situated to provide broadband service universally throughout their service territories,” Haslam said.

The plan also would provide grants to local libraries for programs to help residents improve their computer literacy skills.

Lawmakers applauded the proposal during Haslam’s State of the State address on Jan. 30. The executive vice president and general manager of the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association, David Callis, issued a statement of support for the plan.

Through trade associations, the state’s largest private internet providers have told the

USA TODAY NETWORK-Tennessee that it is too early to assess the plan. Haslam has yet to file the needed legislation.

Access to high-speed internet service is essential in today’s economy, and Tennessee’s rural counties should be able to have the same access as the state’s cities and suburban counties.

Providing subsidies to providers that level the playing field is an appropriate and needed initiative for state government to pursue. Haslam’s proposal has the potential to improve the economies and the quality of life in areas of the state that cannot be left behind.

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel

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

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