Surplus could help rural counties get high-speed web
Tennessee lawmakers looking for ways to spend $1 billion in one-time surplus funds should consider investing in high-speed internet service for the state’s most economically challenged rural counties.
High-speed connections would place rural students on the same page as their urban counterparts, make existing businesses more competitive and attract sorely needed new investments.
With the economy humming, the state is enjoying a $1.8 billion surplus, with $1 billion of that amount in non-recurring funds available for one-time projects. The state has many needs, but the lack of broadband access in rural areas is acute.
According to a report commissioned last year by state Economic and Community Development Commissioner Randy Boyd, close to 835,000 Tennesseans do not have high-speed internet service.
High-speed internet is vital to economic development, which has been a struggle for some of the state’s rural counties. The report, assembled by consultants Strategic Networks Group and NEO Connect, was the result of canvassing 23,000 households and businesses.
“Businesses participating in the assessment said broadband enabled 43 percent of all net new jobs and 66 percent of revenues,” the consultants wrote. “In addition, 34 percent of businesses classified broadband as essential to selecting their location, and 56 percent noted that it was essential to remain in their location. Sixteen percent of economic development agencies reported that businesses frequently chose not to locate in an area due to insufficient broadband.”
Scott County, designated an economically distressed county by the Appalachian Regional Commission, has benefitted from high-speed internet access since Highland Telephone Cooperative, the county’s internet provider, received a $67 million federal stimulus grant six years ago. The cooperative used the funding to install 2,700 miles of fiber optic lines in its service area, according to a USA Today Network - Tennessee report.
Installation is expensive — about $20,000 for each mile of fiber optic cable — and rural cooperatives like Highland cannot afford to build networks on their own.
According to the USA Today Network, AT&T, Frontier Communications and CenturyLink have accepted $210 million to expand high-speed internet service in rural counties through the federal government’s Connect America Fund.
The state of Tennessee could use a chunk of its surplus to accelerate the pace of expansion. The Governor’s Rural Task Force could administer a state grant program using a portion of the one-time funding until it runs out.
The task force is made up of 120 Tennesseans representing a range of sectors and officials from 18 state agencies. Areas targeted for improvement include health, education, economic development and entrepreneurship.
Levoy Knowles, executive director of the Tennessee Telecommunications Association, said recently that high-speed internet should be considered standard infrastructure, like water or sewer lines.
“Our association feels that every Tennessean should have access to broadband,” he told the News Sentinel last month.
We agree. The budget surplus gives Gov. Bill Haslam and the state Legislature an opportunity to invest more — without raising taxes or cannibalizing other needed programs — into the rural counties that can use an economic boost.
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