Tennessee Officials Rally Behind Connectivity Legislation

Lawmakers are focusing their efforts on legislation that would boost incentives to service providers and reduce the regulations facing untapped partners.

Providing broadband service to rural communities is at the center of a legislative effort announced by Gov. Bill Haslam Jan. 26. The plan comes just days before Haslam’s State of the State address and at a time when approximately 34 percent of state’s rural communities are without broadband service that meets the recognized minimum connectivity standards.

Under the terms of the Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act, approximately $45 million in grants and tax credits would be made available to service providers over the course of the next three years, while loosening the restrictive frameworks around Internet service in the state.  

Of the funds, $30 million would be allotted for deployment of service in underserved areas, while the remaining $15 million would go toward the tax credits for service providers for the purchase of broadband equipment.

“Some of the most difficult challenges are facing our rural areas. Our rural areas have a lot of opportunities to succeed, and they can do that through technology,” he said during a press conference at Cane Ridge High School Thursday.

Haslam said the broadband legislation will focus on three key areas: deregulation, education and investment. As it stands, nonprofit electric cooperatives are restricted from providing retail broadband service. The governor said the uniquely situated cooperatives pose an opportunity for better access to affordable service.

“The plan will lift current restrictions and permit Tennessee’s private, nonprofit electric cooperatives to provide retail broadband service,” he explained.

On the education front, the governor explained the legislation would provide additional funding resources to public libraries for digital literacy education.

“We know that providing accessibility without people taking advantage of that will accomplish very little, so the plan will provide grant funding opportunities to our local libraries to help our residents improve their digital literacy skills and learn about the benefits of broadband,” Haslam said.

Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, also joined in the Thursday announcement and said the idea behind the legislation centers on improved Internet services for rural communities, and not bigger government. He said officials are focused on what better connections will mean for employment, education, economic development and law enforcement.

“Better access to broadband is going to address each and every one of those areas that are of such great importance to us,” he said.

Despite the investment in rural networks, Haslam said there is no guarantee the plan will completely alleviate connection disparities in the state. He told reporters at the announcement that any successes would need to be measured at the end of the three-year period.

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at eeidam@erepublic.com.