Everyone Agrees Rural Tennessee Needs Help Getting Online, But How? | Nashville Public Radio

Everyone Agrees Rural Tennessee Needs Help Getting Online, But How?

Jul 27, 2016

Gigabit-speed internet has been a buzzword around Nashville, with several companies competing to roll out super-fast connections. But a recent report from the state's economic development office pointed out that some parts of the state are far behind when it comes to getting online.

Nearly everyone — 98 percent of people — in urban areas of Tennessee has access to internet with download speeds of 25 Mpbs or faster, even if they're not purchasing it for their own homes.

In rural areas, that's much lower: Only about two-thirds have access. Humphreys County Mayor Jessie Wallace says even that sounds generous in his part of the state.

"There's no internet service at all available to the homes of probably half our population, at any speed," he says.

Humphreys County is about 60 miles west of Nashville, with a population density of 35 people per square mile. Wallace lives in the city of New Johnsonville, which has 1,800 residents and internet access. But in most of the county, he says, private companies haven't laid the lines to serve such sparely populated areas.

The result, Wallace says: Humphreys County is obsessed with getting online. 

"Almost every meeting of community leaders … transitions to broadband — or more to the point, the lack thereof."

Controversial Solutions 

Without internet, it's hard to convince businesses to set up shop, Wallace says. Getting tourists to come is a struggle. And telecommuting isn't an option.

"You can't live in rural Humphreys County and work from home," he says.

The need for more internet in rural Tennessee is mentioned throughout the state's new report. Policymakers on all sides agree that it's a problem, but they don't agree on the solution. 

The most controversial idea in the report is allowing electric companies to fill the coverage gap. Currently, utility companies run by municipalities can provide internet to residents — Chattanooga or Tullahoma both do this — but they aren't allowed to do so outside of their existing coverage area. Electric cooperatives, nonprofit utilities that serve 71 percent of the state, can't provide internet at all.

But lifting those restrictions has failed in the state legislature for several years, with private telecom companies arguing that it would damage their business.

Shortly after the report was released, Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin, said he was concerned that it even mentioned electric utilities providing broadband. He says broadband expansion should be taken on by private companies, and that government utilities and nonprofit co-ops should try to stay out of it.

"It's not fiscally prudent for the taxpayers to do that, and it's unfair competition for the nonprofits over [private] business entities," he says. "Municipal government [or] co-ops competing against for-profit companies has dire consequences."

For the state's part, economic development commissioner Randy Boyd says this one aspect of the report shouldn't be the only focus of discussion. It also lays out several other ideas, like providing tax incentives for telecom companies and applying for federal grants.

"Rather than looking at a list of options and finding the one thing you don't like, it would be far better to find things that you can support and let's talk about those," Boyd says.

Getting broadband to everyone in Tennessee, he says, is "going to take time, it's going to be expensive, and there's no way we can do it unless we do it together."