JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – It’s an issue that was heavily highlighted during the pandemic — the inequality of high-speed internet and sometimes even access.
“We look at having the ability to use the internet as almost important as having your utilities, electric and water, to your house…we were able to see through this pandemic just how vital and important the internet is,” said state Rep. Jeremy Faison (R- Cosby).
In passing the state’s budget Thursday, the state legislature made a $200 million commitment over the next two years to broadband expansion. $100 million of that will be spent in 2021-2022.
“Everyday technology is changing. I think we are probably soon coming to a place in America where cable and fiber might not necessarily be the future,” said Faison. “Unfortunately what has happened in years past is they put a pot of money out there — some XYZ company, they go apply for it and they spread cable to the people who already have it. We don’t need that. We want to make sure that we’re taking it past the people that already have it.”
People who live in some of the most rural parts of the region and state know the problem all too well.
“We will invest some of the money into mapping Tennessee. There are multiple maps right now that show us who has internet, who doesn’t have internet. But, we don’t know if any of them are 100% accurate,” Faison said. “We’re probably going to…invest some of the money to make sure we know who, what addresses actually in the state of Tennessee have access to the internet or not.”
Companies and providers have to apply for grants through economic development…that money could then go toward putting cable in the ground, setting up satellites and cell towers or creating hot spots.
“It’s not one of those deals where the broadband providers aren’t just going to be sent a check,” said state Rep. Gary Hicks (R-Rogersville). “They have to submit a lot of paperwork and…these are very competitive grants. Not everyone gets chosen. You can see when we have more money to put out there, those that are chosen, that pot gets wider. That’s how we’re going to speed this process up.”
Hicks represents Hawkins County, one of the Tri-Cities’ biggest trouble spots when it comes to broadband access.
“School districts are continuing to see these quarantined students so even next year when we go back in school there may be a time where a student has to be quarantined,” Hicks said. “So, how great it is for that student to have the opportunity to not fall behind and be in a classroom at home.”
Both representatives say that broadband expansion has been in the state’s plan for a few years now but today’s passing of the budget could speed projects up by half the time.