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A Tennessee priority should be making high speed broadband more accessible

In many parts of Tennessee internet access is treated like a luxury. Rural communities have a heartbeat and are part of the fabric of our country and deserve to be as connected as any other group.
Roughly 3 million students across the United States don’t have access to a home internet connection. A third of households with school-age children that do not have home internet cite the expense as the main reason, according to federal Education Department statistics. But in some rural places, a reliable connection can’t be had at any price. Some areas of our county that lack adequate cell phone and internet connections include parts of the Butler area and Roan Mountain area.
Tennessee currently ranks 29th in the U.S. for broadband access, with 13 percent of the state lacking accessibility. While only 2 percent of the state’s urban citizens lack access, 34 percent of rural residents are without coverage at recognized minimum standards due to low population density and challenging geography.
When telephone service began a major expansion across our country in the 1920s, a fundamental economic challenge became clear: It was financially feasible for companies to extend service to densely populated areas. But providing service to lightly populated areas was costly. As a result, many rural areas initially were underserved, even though telephone service was proving to be an invaluable part of modern life.
A century later, this economic factor is stifling the extension of high-speed broadband to many rural areas in Tennessee.
One of Gov. Bill Lee’s focuses from the State of the State address was expanding high speed internet access across the state. Lee proposed a boost to his broadband budget from $15 million last year to $200 million this year.
According to the “Think Tennessee” study from the Center for Rural Strategies, one in four rural Tennesseans don’t have access to high speed internet. For many rural students, their lack of internet access limits how they learn, and that was driven home by the pandemic.
In some areas of Tennessee, it’s by no means uncommon for parents to drive and park near fast-food outlets or other businesses to make use of the Wi-Fi connection so their child can complete homework. And the COVID pandemic has underscored the importance of a proper broadband service for education, as schools shifted to remote instruction and children had to rely on internet connections.
In an effort to accommodate those without reliable internet, students submit their work periodically on UAB drives. In between, teachers can check in with them over the phone.
This is unacceptable. In the 21st century’s wired economy, high-speed broadband service is increasingly critical in business operations, school instruction and personal life. Communications is a human right, and it’s something that is as important as any utility you could have. In today’s world, all of Tennessee deserves adequate high-speed internet. This challenge must be among the highest priorities our state must solve.