By Lou Murrey
On May 16, Gov. Bill Haslam signed the Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act, which will provide $45 million in grants and tax credits for private companies like AT&T and Charter to subsidize the buildout of rural fiber networks.
William Isom of the Sustainable Equitable Agricultural Development Taskforce, a group working on getting community-owned broadband to rural areas, describes the law as “a good first step, but funding broadband infrastructure is really a billion dollar problem.”
One-third of Tennesseans are unserved or underserved by high-speed internet, yet this law restricts municipal, publicly owned broadband networks, like the Gig in Chattanooga, from expanding beyond their service footprint.
The newly signed bill does, however, allow Tennessee’s rural electric cooperatives to provide broadband where previously they were restricted. Isom particularly sees potential for electric cooperatives to connect rural areas to internet access.
“We have good working relationships with the utility boards and we’re excited about an opportunity to engage with our electric cooperatives in Tennessee,” he says.
The cooperatives seem ready to engage too. Volunteer Energy Cooperative devoted the first page of their April newsletter to the issue of broadband. SEAD held three informational workshops in Cumberland County for Volunteer Energy members in early May.
Even the Tennessee Valley Authority wants to get in on the broadband opportunity. The federally owned utility announced in May that they plan to invest $300 million in installing 3,500 miles of fiber optic across their seven-state region.