Haslam broadband plan offers $45M in grants

1/27/2017

More rural Tennesseans will have access to reliable broadband services with public investment, “deregulation” and consumer education, Gov. Bill Haslam said in introducing the latest plank of his legislative agenda. “Unfortunately today, too many of our citizens are without broadband access. In fact 34 percent of our rural residents do not have broadband access at recognized minimum standards,” Haslam said at Cane Ridge High School in Antioch.

Haslam spokeswoman Jennifer Donnals said the 34 percent figure represents about 725,000 people.

The announcement of the plan, officially known as the “Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act,” comes after more than a year of meeting with state leaders and “stakeholders,” Haslam said. Expanding broadband is not new to Tennessee or other rural states, and has been hotly debated in the past. Competition is a key facet of that discussion; it is typically less expensive for any provider to bring services to a heavily populated metropolitan area than to rural communities. That means there is more competition in places like Nashville than in many counties throughout East Tennessee.

The goal of the act is to get access to everyone, but Haslam didn’t give specific details on the precise anticipated increase in access to broadband.

Haslam’s investment portion of his plan aims to help ease the cost of expanding in this markets. The plan will provide $45 million over three years in grants and tax credits for service providers. Specifically Haslam is proposing $30 million in grant money aimed at encouraging deployment to “underserved” areas, and $15 million in tax credits for providers to purchase “broadband specifics.”

In this case, deregulation means allowing electrical cooperatives to provide broadband, something they are currently banned from doing. Many of these cooperatives are already operating in these underserved communities, which could speed up deployment, according to the announcement.

“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.

Municipal electrical systems will also be able to partner with these co-ops on any broadband projects, Donnals said.

None of the expansions matter if citizens don’t know how to use the technology, Haslam said, noting the importance of education.

The plan will provide grant funding opportunities to local libraries to help our residents improve their digital literacy skills and to learn about the benefits of broadband,” Haslam said.

Sen. Majority Leader Mark Norris said the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, a state entity that in part regulates telecommunications and broadband access, will approve Thursday afternoon a final report on “Broadband Internet Deployment, Availability, and Adoption in Tennessee.”

Haslam and Norris said the governor’s legislative package and TACIR’s plan will work in conjunction to achieve the goal of greater access.

In general, the fact Norris — along with Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Randy Boyd and Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner Candice McQueen — attended the unveiling of this plan could mean its prospects of passing in the legislature are high. Other legislation to expand broadband, including one filed by likely gubernatorial candidate Sen. Mark Green, indicate the issue is clearly one lawmakers recognize as something that should be addressed.

It remains to be seen how private providers react to the plan, though. A statement Thursday morning from Joelle Phillips, president of AT&T Tennessee, thanked the governor for the plan but gave no indication as to whether the massive telecommunications company will back the proposal.

“With billions invested in our Tennessee networks, we are encouraged by the governor’s recognition of the work being done by private industry and are also pleased to see the conversation shift toward a more comprehensive approach to encourage continued and accelerated rural broadband deployment, adoption and digital literacy. We look forward to examining the proposed language,” Phillips said in an emailed statement.

A representative from Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A Comcast spokesman declined comment, referring a reporter to the Tennessee Cable Telecommunications Association.

TCTA President Amy Martin said she supports the governor’s desire to expand broadband and appreciates the dialogue on the bill from his office in the past months. But it’s still too early to say whether her organization will support the specific proposal.

“We hope that we can ultimately support it, but until we see the legislation I can’t make a comment on that,” Martin said in a phone interview.

David Callis, executive vice president and general manager of the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association, seemed to share a similar sentiment. In an emailed statement he also thanked Haslam for paying attention to increasing access and specifically to cooperatives.

“The Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act acknowledges the unique role electric co-ops can play in expanding access to broadband,” Callis said. “We are honored that the governor recognizes the deep roots co-ops have in rural and suburban Tennessee, and we look forward to working with the members of the 110th General Assembly to expand connectivity and opportunity.”

The governor has yet to officially file his legislation, which is fairly standard at this early point in the legislative session. It’s also typical for any such legislation to change, at times substantially, before it has a chance of receiving enough legislative support.

Haslam could provide more details about the plan when he delivers his State of the State address Monday.

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by DAVE BOUCHER AND ADAM TAMBURIN; Reporter Nate Rau contributed to this report

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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