Rural Tennessee Economy: Digital Divide, Connectivity Chasm

Rural folks without fast, affordable, reliable Internet access face challenges with common tasks such as doing homework, completing college courses, or running a small business. Although Tennessee has an entrepreneurial spirit, a large swath of the state's rural residents and businesses don't have the connectivity they need to participate in the digital economy. A September article in the Tennessean looks deeper at the state's digital divide between urban and rural areas.

National Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have failed to make good on promises made over recent decades to bring high-quality Internet access to the entire country, both urban and rural. Several telephone cooperatives and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are already actively investing in better Internet access to improve rural Tennessee’s economy.

The Tennessean Perspective

The newspaper the Tennessean laid out much of the connectivity problem in the "Volunteer State." Tennessee may have excellent Internet access statewide, but the urban and rural divide remains. According to a Tennessee Department of Economic & Community Development's report, only 2 percent of all urban residents do not have access to broadband. The FCC defines it as 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed. That number climbs in rural areas, where one out of three residents does not have broadband access. 

Speed Is Not The Only Problem

Some folks simply have no Internet connection. For example, Deborah Bahr drove 30 minutes for Wi-Fi at Bojangles (Chicken and Biscuit) or visited a friend’s house a few miles away. Bahr used to run a coffee shop, leaving the Wi-Fi on continuously so local community college students could work on homework overnight in the parking lot. Bahr’s town borders Cocke County, an economically distressed area where almost 30 percent of residents are below the poverty level. 

A state law that prevents cities from expanding telecommunications services to neighboring rural areas hampers local communities’ efforts to bridge the rural-urban divide. The Tennessean article noted that the city of Clarksville has access to a Gigabit (1,000 Mbps), but in nearby Houston County, 99 percent of residents do not have broadband access. Clarksville has high-speed connectivity because the community has CDE Lightband, a municipal Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network that offers a range of affordable Internet access speeds, including a Gigabit package.

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Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, in speaking with the Tennessean, aptly summarized the dilemma that many face:

“Do we want private enterprise to compete with the government? I don’t think that’s government’s role. Our goal is to provide services people can’t get on their own. But that’s the sticky part. This is a service that people in some places in the state can’t get on their own.”

USDA #RuralMade, More Than Ag

Those rural areas with high-speed connectivity in Tennessee often have their local telephone cooperative to thank. Formed by farmers years ago with support from the federal government, these cooperatives brought the first telephone lines out to rural Tennessee. Although fiber networks in rural areas have a high-cost, many of Tennessee’s rural telephone cooperatives have built them. 

A few, such as Highland Telephone Cooperative and Twin Lakes Telephone Cooperative, relied on support from the USDA to build high-speed FTTH networks. In Tennessee alone the USDA has already invested $236 million for telecommunication projects. For more information on USDA’s multi-million dollar investments in Tennessee, check out the USDA #RuralMade Tennessee Fact Sheet.

These projects are recognized as supporting all aspects of the rural economy from manufacturing to healthcare. According to the Tennessee Department of Economic & Community Development's report, 24 percent of Tennessee’s households run a business from home with 14 percent operating a business exclusively from their home. That same study found that 43 percent of all new jobs are enabled by broadband.

The rural economy needs high-speed connectivity to move forward. In the Tennessean article, Bahr perfectly encapsulated this:

"I want people around here ... to see themselves as entrepreneurs and real stakeholders," she said. "It could help them start their own businesses."