The Tennessee legislature has passed a bill that could make it easier for residents in rural areas to gain access to broadband internet amid concerns that it doesn’t do enough to guarantee high-speed access statewide.
During the debate in the House Monday evening, lawmakers said they hoped the bill would be a start to getting everyone across the state connected.
The Broadband Accessibility Act of 2017 bill, was pushed by Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam as a way to help the economy in rural Tennessee areas not currently served with what’s considered a broadband internet connection.
With this measure, it clears the way for nonprofit electric cooperatives to provide both internet and video service (cable TV). The bill also gives $45 million in grants and tax credits to co-ops and other internet service providers in hopes to encourage the development of Internet access in areas that are currently unserved.
We reported in February that locally, the Sequachee Valley Electrical Cooperative has elected to perform a feasibility study to see if such a service over fiber optic lines much like what Chattanooga’s EPB Fiber Optics provides would be of benefit for both the co-op and its’ members.
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 within the county are still not served by businesses like Charter Spectrum, Blue Bridge Media, or by AT&T’s U-Verse services.
The Tennessee Telecommunications Association (TTA), who represents 21 independent and cooperatively owned telecom cooperatives and independent companies that make high-speed broadband or fiber available to more than 136,000 rural Tennesseeans, said Monday that passage of the bill is a good first step toward making broadband available to more rural Tennesseeans.
“This is a major step in the right direction,” said Levoy Knowles, Executive Director of TTA.
“As providers of high-speed broadband and fiber to a large portion of rural Tennessee, we know there are still places that need to get connected. This is an issue that won’t be fixed overnight.
“But our members, both the independent companies and the cooperatives, are optimistic about working with the electrical co-ops to make broadband available to many more rural Tennesseeans.”
David Callis, Executive Vice President and General Manager of TECA, said:
“The Tennessee Electrical Cooperative Association supports the Governor’s Broadband Accessibility Act. Expanded access to high-speed Internet in rural areas can have a profound impact on job creation, economic investment, education, and health care.
“Electric and telephone co-ops serve the state’s most rural and economically disadvantaged regions. The Governor’s legislation will now allow electric cooperatives to play a vital role in bringing broadband to these underserved areas.
“With our joint dedication and presence in these rural areas, electrical and telephone cooperatives have a great opportunity to work together to meet this challenge.”
This bill and corresponding legislation came after a year of study and stakeholder conversations by the administration. In July 2016, the Department of Economic and Community Development released a commissioned study assessing broadband in Tennessee and options for increasing access and utilization. In addition, a report issued by the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR), which completed extensive work on the subject of broadband accessibility and adoption, significantly contributed to Haslam’s broadband proposal.
Some of the provisions of the act include:
- Allowing electrical cooperatives to provide broadband service separately from their electric power service.
- Permits the electrical cooperatives to provide video/cable TV service.
- Provides $30 million in grants and $15 million in tax breaks to encourage expansion of rural broadband into areas without access.
The Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act is part of Haslam’s NextTennessee legislative plan aimed at building and sustaining economic growth and the state’s competitiveness for the next generation of Tennesseans.