Connecting rural Tennessee to broadband

Robert Houk • Sep 19, 2018 at 7:42 PM

A report released by a nonpartisan think tank said rural Tennesseans are not reaping the educational, health and economic benefits of the internet.

A news release from ThinkTennessee on Monday said “roughly a quarter of Tennessee’s rural families are without any kind of broadband access, while 23 percent of the total population reports that they lack a high-speed internet subscription.”

Meanwhile, officials with BrightBridge said Wednesday the public utility plans to address that problem locally with its new broadband service. The $64 million plan is divided into eight phases, with each expected to take a year to complete.

“Internal research indicates that approximately 3 percent of the Washington County population faces inadequate or non-existent broadband service,” BrightRidge CEO Jeff Dykes said. “In developing our broadband deployment plan, we included as many of these areas as possible, and roll-out begins in rural as well as urban settings in the very first deployment phase.”

Dykes said BrightRidge’s research and beta deployment has determined that cellular-type LTE technology “offers real world connectivity that meets or exceeds existing service speeds offered in the rural marketplace and can be deployed at a fraction of the cost.” He said this makes LTE-type technology an important role in “balancing the high capital outlay versus low return problem” presented by low-density communities.

“LTE-type technology is therefore a major component of the BrightRidge deployment plan in semi-rural and rural areas of our four-county service area, which includes Washington, as well as parts of Sullivan, Carter and Greene counties,” Dykes told the Johnson City Press.

ThinkTennessee and the Center of Rural Strategies released a policy brief this week that said many of the state’s rural families have problems accessing affordable broadband. The report said Tennessee is ranked 44th in the nation for the number of broadband subscribers in the state.

Researchers from the think tank have offered a number of what they called “flexible policy solutions” that could help bridge the digital gap. Among them are launching digital literacy programs in rural communities with more older Tennesseans than are found in more urban areas of the state. ThinkTennessee believes this could help increase the demand for high-speed internet in some isolated communities.

“From the roads we drive on to the water we drink, public infrastructure powers our communities — and internet access is a key piece of that infrastructure,” Shanna Singh Hughey, president ThinkTennessee, said in a prepared statement. “Much like safe roads and clean water, all Tennesseans deserve access to the vast wealth of the internet.”

The think tank and officials with the Center for Rural Strategies also think policies like the “dig once” approach can help expand broadband connections while reducing the cost for the infrastructure. The strategy calls for utilities to coordinate road construction and other infrastructure improvements with broadband installation.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to internet access and affordability, but if we create more pathways for providers, invest in local programs and emphasize efficient infrastructure deployment, we can improve the lives of thousands of Tennesseans,” Whitney Kimball Coe, director of national programs for the Center for Rural Strategies, said earlier this week.

BrightRide officials say the utility used a “dig once” policy for infrastructure improvements in downtown Jonesborough in 2012.

“As the plan was developed to move overhead power lines underground throughout the downtown Main Street corridor, we sized our underground conduit to allow for future growth,” Dykes said. “This will allow BrightRidge to deploy fiber optic infrastructure in downtown Jonesborough much more quickly and efficiently.”

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