Ex­pand­ing in­ter­net to ru­ral ar­eas a key is­sue

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - FRONT PAGE - BY JAMIE MCGEE USA TO­DAY NET­WORK-TEN­NESSEE

For Ten­nessee res­i­dents liv­ing in Hamil­ton County, home to Chat­tanooga’s mu­nic­i­pally pro­vided in­ter­net, 1 per­cent of res­i­dents lack ac­cess to ba­sic in­ter­net speeds.

But in Hick­man County, 35 per­cent lack ac­cess to ba­sic in­ter­net, or speeds of 25 megabits per sec­ond. In Wayne, Perry and Han­cock coun­ties, each clas­si­fied by the state as eco­nom­i­cally dis­tressed or at-risk, about 20 per­cent to 30 per­cent lack ac­cess, ac­cord­ing a 2016 re­port from the Ten­nessee Eco­nomic and Com­mu­nity De­vel­op­ment of­fice.

“A lot of peo­ple don’t have it at home,” said Hick­man County Li­brary Di­rec­tor David Dansby. “If you can get it at home, it’s dial-up and hard to con­nect.”

Hick­man res­i­dents de­pend on the li­brary’s in­ter­net to fill out unem­ploy­ment claims, look for jobs, com­plete home­work and con­duct ba­sic tasks, he said. While some live just a few min­utes away, oth­ers will drive a half hour to use the li­brary’s in­ter­net.

The ef­fect of lim­ited broad­band ac­cess plays out in trans­mit­ting health care data, telemedicine, ba­sic busi­ness op­er­a­tions, pub­lic safety, prop­erty val­ues and ed­u­ca­tion at all lev­els, prompt­ing both Ten­nessee can­di­dates for U.S. Se­nate — Repub­li­can U.S. Rep. Mar­sha Black­burn and former Demo­cratic Gov. Phil Bre­desen — to em­pha­size the crit­i­cal need for greater con­nec­tion in ru­ral ar­eas of Ten­nessee.

But the two can­di­dates are tak­ing dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to

how they would work to boost broad­band ac­cess in ru­ral ar­eas and what role the fed­eral gov­ern­ment should play.

Black­burn and Bre­desen are vy­ing to suc­ceed the re­tir­ing U.S. Sen. Bob Corker in the Nov. 6 gen­eral elec­tion. Early vot­ing be­gins Wed­nes­day.

OVER­COM­ING LOW-DEN­SITY, HIGH COSTS

The hur­dle to broad­band ex­pan­sion in ru­ral ar­eas is a lack of den­sity. The cost of in­stal­la­tion is close to the same in sub­ur­ban ar­eas, but the num­ber of house­holds to cover that cost per mile is much smaller, mak­ing ex­pan­sion fi­nan­cially dif­fi­cult for providers.

“The num­ber of house­holds sim­ply aren’t there and the in­fras­truc­ture is costly to put in,” said Eric Fred­er­ick, vice pres­i­dent of com­mu­nity af­fairs for Ken­tucky-based non­profit Con­nected Na­tion.

Con­nect­ing each home in Ten­nessee to ba­sic speeds would cost be­tween $360 mil­lion and $1.7 bil­lion, ac­cord­ing to the state.

Last year, the Ten­nessee Gen­eral Assem­bly passed leg­is­la­tion pushed by Gov. Bill Haslam al­low­ing elec­tric co­op­er­a­tives to of­fer broad­band ser­vice and ap­proved $45 mil­lion in grants and tax cred­its for broad­band ex­pan­sion over a three­year pe­riod. In Jan­uary, Haslam an­nounced $10 mil­lion would be dis­trib­uted, con­nect­ing 5,000 house­holds, or close to 1 per­cent of the 366,000 house­holds in Ten­nessee lack­ing ac­cess as of 2016.

For ex­am­ple, the law spurred com­pa­nies such as United Com­mu­ni­ca­tions in Chapel Hill, Ten­nessee, to work with elec­tric co­op­er­a­tive Mid­dle Ten­nessee Elec­tric to ex­pand broad­band. The two groups an­nounced their part­ner­ship in Au­gust.

Sep­a­rately, the fed­eral Con­nect Amer­ica ini­tia­tive has al­lo­cated $8.5 mil­lion to five Ten­nessee car­ri­ers this year to ex­pand ru­ral in­ter­net over the next 10 years to about 3,300 homes. In 2015, Ten­nessee car­ri­ers were awarded $179 mil­lion to con­nect 93,000 homes over a seven-year pe­riod.

But Bre­desen said grants are not enough to bring about the nec­es­sary fixes to broad­band ac­cess.

“I want our coun­try to get back to the days when it did bold projects and not just fool around the edges with grants, tax cred­its and demon­stra­tion projects,” Bre­desen said in pre­pared re­marks in June.

BRE­DESEN TURNS TO TEN­NESSEE VAL­LEY AUTHOR­ITY

For Bre­desen, the so­lu­tion could be the Ten­nessee Val­ley Author­ity. The power provider, a fed­eral agency, brings elec­tric­ity to 9 mil­lion res­i­dents in seven states and nearly 3 mil­lion house­holds through­out Ten­nessee through lo­cal power com­pa­nies.

“I think TVA is a good ve­hi­cle to do this type of de­vel­op­ment be­cause it’s in its DNA. It’s got the struc­ture, the sys­tems and the man­age­ment ex­per­tise to pull off some­thing as big as this,” Bre­desen told the Ki­wa­nis Club in Clarksville in June.

“They’ve got 7,000 em­ploy­ees in the state of Ten­nessee alone, and that’s what it’s go­ing to take — a so­phis­ti­cated ap­proach from peo­ple who know what they’re do­ing.”

TVA is self-funded through elec­tric­ity sales and is not funded through taxes. If more money were needed to sup­port an ex­pan­sion of the TVA’s role, Bre­desen said gov­ern­ment fund­ing could be pro­vided. He pointed to the na­tion’s in­vest­ment in the postal ser­vice, which en­sures res­i­dents can send and re­ceive mail in both ru­ral and ur­ban ar­eas.

“We would have been a very dif­fer­ent na­tion if you had to live within 50 miles of a city to get a let­ter,” Bre­desen said in an emailed state­ment. “If there’s some kind of sub­sidy, I don’t mind that.”

Bre­desen, Ten­nessee gov­er­nor from 2003-2011, said a TVA broad­band model would not limit ex­ist­ing providers’ busi­ness. As it does with elec­tri­cal ser­vice, it would serve as a back­bone of the sys­tem and part­ner with smaller power com­pa­nies and co­op­er­a­tives. It could also work with ma­jor com­mer­cial providers, and those en­ti­ties could also play a role in the in­vest­ment.

“Let’s fig­ure out what it ac­tu­ally takes and how we can put that kind of money to­gether though pri­vate in­vest­ment,” Bre­desen said. “There’s op­por­tu­ni­ties for pub­licpri­vate part­ner­ships in this kind of a thing. Let’s fig­ure out a way to do [it] and just get it done.”

The TVA is un­der­go­ing a $300 mil­lion fiber ini­tia­tive meant to ex­pand fiber ca­pac­ity and im­prove its trans­mis­sion sys­tem. TVA of­fi­cials said its fiber net­work will im­prove con­nec­tions be­tween op­er­a­tions and will in­clude 3,500 miles of fiber in the next 10 years.

When TVA an­nounced its fiber in­vest­ment in May 2017, CEO Bill John­son said there was po­ten­tial to make some of the fiber net­work avail­able to ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties to sup­port eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment.

TVA spokesman Scott Brooks em­pha­sized that TVA is not get­ting into the broad­band busi­ness for con­sumers, but that its fiber could be an op­tion for lo­cal power com­pa­nies.

“Our fiber net­work is in place to sup­port power sys­tem needs, and our fo­cus re­mains on our own op­er­a­tions,” Brooks said in an emailed state­ment. “Should there be tem­po­rary sur­plus ‘dark’ fibers avail­able on the net­work, they could pro­vide op­por­tu­ni­ties for our lo­cal power com­pa­nies or other com­pa­nies to cre­ate or ex­pand their fiber re­lated ser­vices in the Val­ley and reach many of the re­gion’s un­der­served and un­served com­mu­ni­ties.”

As it stands, the TVA lacks the author­ity to pro­vide in­ter­net, and the TVA Act would need to be amended by Con­gress to al­low the agency to pro­vide broad­band ac­cess, a move that Bre­desen is ad­vo­cat­ing for.

BLACK­BURN EM­PHA­SIZES ROLE OF GRANTS

Black­burn, a Brent­wood Repub­li­can who is chair of the House Sub­com­mit­tee on Com­mu­ni­ca­tions and Tech­nol­ogy, said turn­ing to the TVA to help im­ple­ment broad­band in ru­ral ar­eas would raise taxes, dis­cour­age ex­ist­ing providers from serv­ing those ar­eas and hurt com­pe­ti­tion.

“It’s a big gov­ern­ment over­reach­ing ap­proach,” Black­burn said. “This is some­thing that would put the fed­eral gov­ern­ment or gov­ern­ment en­tity in charge of your in­ter­net. That is not some­thing that any­body wants.”

In­stead, the fo­cus should be on elim­i­nat­ing rules and reg­u­la­tions im­ped­ing ex­pan­sion and on pro­vid­ing fund­ing through grants to help pri­vate com­pa­nies ex­pand, she said. She would also like to see a greater em­pha­sis on boost­ing adop­tion rates once res­i­dents gain ac­cess.

While grants also are funded by tax­pay­ers, they tar­get ar­eas most in need and en­cour­age pri­vate in­vest­ment, she said. She es­ti­mated a TVA role would cost tax­pay­ers $1 bil­lion, but did not elab­o­rate on how she de­ter­mined that sum.

Black­burn com­mended the new Ten­nessee Broad­band Ac­ces­si­bil­ity Act un­der Haslam, as well as the in­vest­ments pri­vate com­pa­nies have made in re­cent years.

“We have made tremen­dous progress in ex­pand­ing ac­cess, and we are so pleased that so many com­mu­ni­ties are see­ing the ben­e­fits,” Black­burn said. “Those out there in the com­mu­nity, th­ese com­pa­nies pro­vid­ing this ser­vice, they are ex­pand­ing their foot­print every sin­gle day.”

Black­burn said progress is be­ing made.

In 2016, the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion re­ported 34 per­cent of house­holds in ru­ral Ten­nessee lacked ac­cess, com­pared to 23 per­cent in the 2018.

While the FCC data shows im­prove­ment, the way it is col­lected over­states con­nec­tion, Fred­er­ick said. If any home in a cen­sus block has ac­cess, the cen­sus block is clas­si­fied as hav­ing ac­cess, re­duc­ing the re­ports’ over­all ac­cu­racy. Mean­while, greater speeds and band­width will be needed as more tasks are com­pleted on­line.

“Our de­mand for ap­pli­ca­tions and ser­vices on­line con­tin­ues to in­crease ex­po­nen­tially,” Fred­er­ick. “It’s con­stantly a mov­ing tar­get.”

In 2018, Con­gress passed leg­is­la­tion sup­ported by Black­burn that ded­i­cates $600 mil­lion to broad­band grants and loans in ru­ral ar­eas na­tion­ally un­der a pilot pro­gram.

The same law re­quires the FCC to iden­tify spec­trum that can be ded­i­cated to mo­bile and fixed broad­band use and to stream­line rights-of-way ease­ments for providers. It also orders a study eval­u­at­ing broad­band avail­abil­ity through un­li­censed spec­trum and wire­less net­works in low-in­come neigh­bor­hoods.

Black­burn also sup­ports in­tro­duced leg­is­la­tion that cre­ates a task force for study­ing broad­band needs in the agri­cul­tural sec­tor, as well as a sep­a­rate act that holds work­shops with com­mu­ni­ties need­ing ac­cess. Mov­ing for­ward, Black­burn said she would like to fo­cus on free­ing up more spec­trum to in­crease satel­lite and wire­less op­tions.

While Black­burn has em­pha­sized dereg­u­la­tion, she has also fought to keep some Ten­nessee laws in­tact re­lated to mu­nic­i­pally-owned in­ter­net providers.

When Chat­tanooga’s EPB, which has of­fered gi­ga­bit speed in­ter­net to Hamil­ton County res­i­dents since 2010, sought to ex­pand beyond its elec­tric foot­print, the FCC granted its re­quest in 2015. Black­burn re­sponded with leg­is­la­tion to fight the FCC’s ap­proval. The state ap­pealed the FCC’s de­ci­sion and won, block­ing Chat­tanooga’s ex­pan­sion.

“The pri­vate sec­tor is work­ing to close this dig­i­tal di­vide every sin­gle day,” Black­burn said. “They are go­ing to be able to close that di­vide much more quickly than a gov­ern­men­tal en­tity.”

Con­tact Jamie McGee at 615-259-8071 and on Twit­ter @JamieMcGee_.

“The num­ber of house­holds sim­ply aren’t there and the in­fras­truc­ture is costly to put in.”

– ERIC FRED­ER­ICK, VICE PRES­I­DENT OF COM­MU­NITY AF­FAIRS FOR KEN­TUCKY-BASED NON­PROFIT CON­NECTED NA­TION

Mar­sha Black­burn

Phil Bre­desen

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