Tennessee Launches Survey to Determine Rural Broadband Usage, Need

The survey aims to determine which areas have the greatest need for broadband services, how it is used in businesses, and how costly it would be to fix it.

by Jay Powell, The Daily Herald, Columbia, Tenn. / January 28, 2016

(TNS) -- A new survey by the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development aims to pinpoint the need for broadband services in rural areas and how it can improve the state’s future economic growth.

TNECD Commissioner Randy Boyd launched the statewide survey earlier this month and said he hopes it will attract small business owners, entrepreneurs and those in rural areas without an Internet connection. Boyd spent much of 2015 visiting rural communities on an initial set of listening tours, where he said the biggest takeaway was how being connected has become an essential tool for business.

“Overwhelmingly, probably 30 minutes out of every hour was focused on rural broadband. Of all the notes that we took from across the state, that was the number one issue people raised for multiple reasons,” Boyd said. “For one, it serves educational purposes and connections to school with adults studying from home. The second is for businesses. Any business in a community is going to have to have it to be successful today.”

Another component of the study is how broadband is used for “telehealth” services, or healthcare support via digital technologies.

“For it to work, you’ve got to have broadband. For all of those reasons, it became pretty apparent that this is kind of like the electricity or water of the past,” Boyd said. “You have to have these basic services to exist and be successful, so with that in mind we wanted to determine what the problem was and to define it.”

The survey will continue through March 15. It takes about 20 minutes and is available at www.tn.gov/broadband. It aims to determine which areas have the greatest need for broadband services, how it is used in businesses, and how costly it would be to fix it, he added.

The information will be compiled and presented to state legislators and Gov. Bill Haslam in May. Boyd said he hopes the results will clearly define what broadband is, what percentage of the population has it, what they use it for and how much it will cost to provide it to those needing it.

About 7,000 have participated in the TNECD survey so far, but Boyd says there needs to be more, especially those in rural communities.

“Seven thousand is okay, but we need more, and in a lot of cases it’s the people in rural communities, or the ones we’re trying to serve the most, that have participated the least,” Boyd said. “Any way we can promote them into participating, the better.”

TNECD has partnered with broadband economists from Strategic Networks Groups (SNG) and NEO Fiber for the initiative.

The South Central Tennessee Development District oversees 35 municipal and 13 county governments and broadband has been discussed among board members as a priority, Mayor Dean Dickey said. Hickman and Perry Counties are two that have shown a need for the service, he said.

“That could hurt us as a region as far as recruiting jobs at some point, and I believe our legislators are aware of that,” Dickey said. “It’s mainly those counties to the west of us that need it.”

Expansion of broadband is also a high priority for companies like Farm Bureau, not just in providing an affordable and needed service to rural citizens, but because technological advancements have historically helped communities in the past.

“There’s no doubt this is one of our top priorities. As a farm organization, we think farmers and rural people need broadband access,” Lee Maddox, Farm Bureau’s director of communications said. “We’re promoting this economic and community development survey to all of our folks across the state. Actually, our president sent out a letter to all 95 county presidents encouraging them to take it.”

A report in Feb. 2008 from Connected Tennessee measured the economic impact of broadband adoption in the state, including Maury County. It saw a $2.4 billion economic impact that would create 49,000 jobs and generate $1.6 billion in direct income growth. It would also save Tennessee residents roughly $13 million in average healthcare costs, $130 million in gas mileage costs and cut down on more than 66 million pounds of annual CO2 emissions, according to Connected Maury County’s strategic technology plan.

©2016 The Daily Herald (Columbia, Tenn.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.