Recent legislation by Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam aimed at allowing electrical cooperatives in the state to provide broadband Internet access to customers in their service areas has gained much attention across the state, including locally with the Sequachee Valley Electric Cooperative (SVEC).
The Governor’s Broadband Accessibility Act will deregulate a provision that’s kept cooperatives like SVEC out of the broadband Internet business since the technology came to the forefront several years ago.
“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.
Tennessee currently ranks No. 29 in the U.S. for broadband access, with 34 percent of rural Tennessee residents lacking access at recognized minimum standards (25 megabytes per second of download speed and 3 megabytes per second of upload speed).
And while high-speed choices are available in parts of Marion County, those speeds do not rival the speed of fiber optic services and many locations are still not served by businesses like Charter Spectrum, Blue Bridge Media, or by AT&T’s U-Verse services.
Meanwhile, other electrical providers around the country have been able to offer broadband services to their customers, such as the Electric Power Board in Chattanooga (EPB) has offered with their popular EBP Fi services. EPB planned to expand into other markets around Chattanooga and even gained approval from the Federal Communications Commission to override a law in Tennessee that prevents such providers from providing internet services outside its network., only to be overruled by an Appellate Court last year siding with the telecom industry and barring EPB from expansion beyond its current service area. The new Act introduced by the Governor, if passed, could change things significantly to the benefit of our local providers.
SVEC President Mike met with members of the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association in Nashville last week to discuss the plans with Governor Haslam.
Partin says SVEC has been putting the necessary infrastructure in place for this purpose for the past few years by building a fiber backbone between offices and substations. The coop has been leasing the dark fiber to another entity to provide service over the cables, but with the Governor’s proposal, they could begin to use that fiber instead to provide service to homes and serve broadband services to customers in their service area.
SVEC and other cooperatives around the state are looking into the feasibility of such a service in their communities. Business models for rural cooperatives such as SVEC are typically based on lower density populations unlike that of the larger areas like Chattanooga, so developing a plan making sure it’s in the best interest of the coop and will bring enough revenue to support the systems’ buildout is an important step in the process.
The Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act, along with Haslam’s proposed budget, would provide $45 million over three years in grants and tax credits for service providers to assist in making broadband available to unserved homes and businesses, according to a news release.
Partin and others say the Governor’s plan isn’t perfect, but it’s a good starting point that SVEC and other cooperatives have been waiting for, for a while.
And customers in the area are already buzzing about it, too.
Partin says a lot of people are excited and the coop has been receiving many calls and emails about the prospect of broadband services and an alternative to what they have now.
Governor Haslam’s proposal has not yet been formally introduced to the State Legislature.
The complete document, as well as more information on some of Haslam’s other policy proposals, can be found at tn.gov/nexttennessee.