To appreciate challenges associated with closing the digital divide, readers need only to turn their attention to Tennessee. Across the state, local leaders, advocates, and Internet service providers have been working for years to plan and implement broadband solutions. Local leaders in communities big and small have discovered countless barriers to connectivity.
NCC member municipality, Chattanooga, illustrates how local solutions can create one of the most well-connected internet hubs in the country. Through its electric utility provider, EPB, local officials deployed a fiber-optic network in an area once known for poor connectivity. Ten years later, it serves as a model for how communities can provide fast, reliable, and most importantly, affordable broadband access.
Robust broadband networks have a far-reaching impact. “A study ordered up by Chattanooga’s municipal utility credits its public broadband infrastructure initiative with an economic impact of more than $2.69 billion over its first decade.”
On the other hand, some communities in Tennessee are still facing an uphill battle to address connectivity gaps among their most vulnerable populations. 300 miles away, in NCC’s 2020 case study on the City of Memphis, Brittany-Rae Gregory highlighted work underway to bridge the digital divide for Tennessee residents in urban areas. She explained that, “According to 2018 American Community Survey data, Memphis was the 20th most disconnected city out of the 623 cities… At the time, nearly 50% of Memphis households did not have cable, DSL, or fiber broadband.”
Memphis’ Chief Information Officer, Kimberly Bailey, is leading her team and private partners in a mission to improve digital opportunities for students and businesses. Calling on often overlooked partners, such as churches and the Shelby County Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., Memphis continues to carry out plans for post-covid broadband strategies. Plans include expanding partnerships with Vision 2020, Code Crew, and other groups that focus on growing coding and computer skills for youth populations.
Between Memphis and Chattanooga is the City of Tullahoma. With a population of just under 20,000, this NCC member municipality faces many of the same challenges as their neighboring communities in rural areas. The barrier standing in the way of universal connectivity for residents of Middle Tennessee is twofold. According to US Representative John Rose:
The harsh reality is that over half a million Tennesseans only have access to one Internet service provider, and 274,000 people still lack reliable internet access. Expanding digital access for folks who live in the Middle Tennessee counties I represent and for all Tennesseans is critical for economic growth, job creation, and improving our overall quality of life.
Tullahoma is only 90 minutes from the center of Chattanooga, the state’s “Gig City,” but is better categorized as a broadband desert. One resident was quoted in the Chattanooga Times Free Press saying, “In the shadow of the gig, there are hundreds of people – nearly all in rural areas – who can’t access even basic broadband Internet.”
Local leaders and state officials are taking a proven approach to provide broadband in these areas – public-private partnerships. One state senator proposed legislation that allows electric co-ops of municipal networks to expand their service territory to serve additional Tennesseans when private Internet service providers fail to meet service demands.
From Memphis to Knoxville to the Appalachian Mountains, Tennessee residents are facing a wide variety of challenges to close the digital divide. Across their 440 miles, from East to West, farmers, students, workers, and leaders are searching for ways to get online and participate in a digital economy . Meeting their goal will take them down a winding road that includes deploying infrastructure, lowering the cost of adoption, and teaching every household how to take advantage of these important technologies.
Tennessee may be home to “Gig City.” But the hard work of local officials is to transform that catchy nickname into a reality for all of the state’s 6.8 million residents.