Legislation that will increase broadband internet access for rural area residents is headed to Gov. Bill Haslam's desk.
The Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act provides $45 million over three years in grants and tax credits for service providers to assist in making broadband available to unserved homes and businesses.
Tennessee currently ranks 29th in the U.S. for broadband access, with 34 percent of rural Tennessee residents lacking access at recognized minimum standards.
The plan will also permit Tennessee’s private, nonprofit electric cooperatives to provide retail broadband service and make grant funding available to the state’s local libraries to help residents improve their digital literacy skills and maximize the benefits of broadband.
To put it in a local perspective, this means Cleveland's Volunteer Energy Cooperative—which services a large area of Bradley County—can now begin direct negotiations on contracts with EPB to bring the gig to Bradley County, said Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, who fought for broadband expansion last legislative session.
"It's a great step forward, [but] I'm calling this a broadband baby step," he also said.
He alluded to compromise on the bill.
"It's not everything we wanted," he said. "Not everybody got what they wanted, which means it's probably a good bill."
The House of Representatives passed HB 529/SB 1215 93–4. The Senate passed the legislation 31–0 April 3.
And although the bill will help people in Bradley County, it doesn't benefit residents within the city of Cleveland, he said.
"We were not able to include cities and municipalities [in the bill], but we were able to include electric co-ops," he said.
When asked why it was more difficult to include city electricity providers, Brooks said it is about competition and money.
Allowing municipalities to offer services increases competition, but AT&T, Comcast and other providers have said that it isn't fair for them to compete against government entities such as EPB.
Last year, the corporations lobbied legislators and killed another effort for broadband expansion.
"We got the co-ops and we're going to keep working on cities and municipalities," Brooks said. "We are going to take what we can get ... It's a big deal."
This year's legislation came after a year of study and stakeholder conversations by the administration, according to a news release from Haslam's office.
In July 2016, the Department of Economic and Community Development released a commissioned study assessing broadband in Tennessee and options for increasing access and utilization.
In addition, a report issued by the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, which completed extensive work on the subject of broadband accessibility and adoption, significantly contributed to Haslam’s broadband proposal.
The Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act is part of Haslam’s NextTennessee legislative plan aimed at building and sustaining economic growth and competitiveness for the next generation of Tennesseans.
Haslam thanked the General Assembly for support of the bill and singled out Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville; Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville; and Rep. David Hawk, R-Greeneville.
"More than 800,000 Tennesseans don’t have access to broadband, and one in three businesses identified it as essential to selecting their location," Haslam also said. "Spurring deployment in our rural, unserved areas will open them up to economic investment and growth."