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TN Broadband Accessibility Act overcomes committee hurdle

column-lawmakingSenate committees wrapped up budget hearings for various agencies and departments of state government last week and moved a number of important bills to the Senate floor for final action. This includes the Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act, which proposes a responsible path to improve access to broadband through investment, deregulation and education.

Senate Bill 1215, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell (R-Riceville), Senate State and Local Government Chairman Ken Yager (R-Kingston), and Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), would spur deployment in rural unserved areas, opening them up to economic investment and job growth.

The Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act is part of Governor Bill Haslam’s NextTennessee legislative plan to build and sustain the state’s competitiveness for the next generation of Tennesseans. Tennessee currently ranks 29th in the U.S. for broadband access, with 13 percent of the state lacking accessibility. While only two percent of the state’s urban citizens lack access, 34 percent of rural residents are without coverage at recognized minimum standards because of low population density and challenging geography.

“We need better access, not bigger government,” said Sen. Mark Norris (R-Collierville). “Broadband is critical to commerce and the quality of life of every Tennessean and is essential for our current and future education and economic initiatives.”

Tenn. Sen. Mark Norris (R-Collierville)

Sen. Mark Norris (R-Collierville)

The legislation calls for a three-year investment of $45 million in grants and tax credits that focus on the state’s unserved areas. This includes a $30 million “Broadband Accessibility Grant Program” and $15 million in tax credits to private service providers based on the purchase of broadband equipment used to provide access in the most economically challenged counties.

On deregulation, the proposal permits the state’s private, nonprofit electric co-operatives to provide broadband and cable video services. The co-ops are currently restricted from providing retail broadband services. To protect co-op ratepayers, the legislation prevents the use of electric system assets to subsidize broadband services.

Bell said, “The co-ops have many years of experience in providing service to rural communities in the state. It’s what they were created to do, so they are uniquely qualified to expand broadband to unserved areas.”

He said his support for the proposal stems “not from the people who want to watch Netflix, but for the people who have to drive 10 miles or more to truck stops to do homework.”

Education is a key component of the broadband legislation, as the digital divide is preventing thousands of Tennessee students in unserved areas from being able to do homework that requires Internet access.

The bill expands opportunities for education by providing grants to the state’s local libraries to help residents improve their digital literacy skills and maximize the benefits of broadband. This is in addition to education efforts by the state’s Rural Task Force and other groups to drive broadband adoption in unserved areas of Tennessee.

The legislation comes after an extensive report was issued by the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR), chaired by Norris, regarding the subject of broadband accessibility which significantly contributed to the broadband proposal. The January 2017 report, titled “Broadband Internet Deployment, Availability, and Adoption in Tennessee,” is available here. Click here to access the appendices.


Provided by the office of Sen. Mark Norris. Email him at sen.mark.norris@capitol.tn.gov.

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