Broadband for all: Northeast Tenn. leaders discuss high-speed internet expansion

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL ) — Northeast Tennessee leaders agree that access to high-speed internet in this day and age is crucial. However, there are pockets of communities in every county in our region that do not have it.

With millions of dollars available for broadband expansion through funding from the American Rescue Plan, Northeast Tennessee legislators say now is the time to act.

“The people in the community are coming to us and saying, we need this,” said state Sen. Rusty Crowe of Johnson City.

Crowe hosted a meeting Thursday morning with fellow Northeast Tennessee lawmakers, local county mayors and utility company leaders to discuss broadband expansion in our region’s most rural areas.

“It is crucial to get this to the entire community so everyone has access and everyone has the opportunity for growth,” said Jeff Dykes, CEO of BrightRidge.

In Tennessee, $500 million in American Rescue Plan funding is being allocated to broadband expansion and providing high-speed internet to those communities still without it.

Even more money to support this could be coming through the infrastructure bill in Congress.

“Billions of dollars are coming down. We have got to be able to access that and do it properly,” said Crowe.

The problem has remained the cost. It is expensive to run fiber to highly remote areas for high-speed internet, but with this funding, it is now possible.

“Just as electricity was an economic development tool years ago, and the impact that had on communities as it brought industries to the Tennessee Valley, broadband is now that tool that is going to bring other industries and other things to the valley,” said Dykes.

Local counties and providers are able to apply for this federal funding this fall to expand to underserved areas without broadband. Distressed and at-risk counties will be prioritized.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, but the horizon looks good for broadband in Tennessee,” said Crowe.

A change in legislation might be necessary. This was discussed by Tennessee lawmakers at Thursday’s meeting. The problem is that each electric/utility company has their own service area and by law they cannot operate outside of that. Changing this to allow providers to serve areas outside of their zone could mean underserved communities get the help they need.

“We run fiber to all of our substations, we have a strong backbone of fiber out there. The opportunity to build off of those and work with one another together is great. For those who choose not to go into the business, the opportunity to work with them and support their customers through broadband would be a tremendous opportunity,” said Dykes.

Millions of dollars were also appropriated in the 2022 Tennessee state budget for broadband expansion.

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