Access to high-speed broadband internet is crucial for various aspects of life, including children’s schoolwork, family communication, and telehealth services. However, in rural parts of Tennessee, approximately one in six people lack access to this essential service. To address this issue, federal and state grant programs have been spearheading infrastructure investments.
The latest initiative is a $20 million “middle mile” broadband grant from the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal. This funding will be used to establish a 155-mile fiber cable line across rural counties in southeast Tennessee. The counties benefiting from this project are Claiborne, Grainger, Hancock, Hawkins, Sullivan, and Union, all located near the state’s eastern border. The grant program prioritizes rural communities that have the least access to the internet.
Local officials, such as Mike Byrd, the mayor of Grainger County, recognize the transformative impact of high-speed internet on their communities. Byrd encourages politicians to work towards expanding broadband into rural areas, emphasizing the significant positive difference it can make in the lives of residents.
Without expanded access to high-speed internet, rural residents often face high costs or limited options. For essential activities like schoolwork and work-related tasks, internet access becomes a necessity. The lack of reliable and affordable broadband has compelled some individuals to pay exorbitant amounts for satellite or other alternative internet sources.
As part of the infrastructure-investment package, President Joe Biden and Congress allocated $65 billion in 2021 for broadband expansion. The Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Program, which received $1 billion, aims to help communities bridge gaps in high-speed internet infrastructure. The project in Tennessee and Virginia is being executed by Blue Ridge Advisory Services Group, under the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
The demand for improved internet service is significant, as demonstrated by the program’s value and the number of applications received. The federal grant program holds the potential to bring about much-needed change in southeast Tennessee and southeast Virginia.
In addition to federal grants, the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development is accepting applications for middle-mile and last-mile internet service projects. The state has allocated $185 million in grants to accelerate internet connections in unserved and underserved areas.
Broadband expansion efforts in Tennessee have been ongoing, with investments being made to improve access. These initiatives have been funded by a combination of American Rescue Plan dollars and other sources. Local governments in various counties have contributed their own funds alongside grants to expand broadband access in rural areas.
Governor Bill Lee has expressed commitment to expanding opportunity in rural and underserved communities. The efforts in Middle and West Tennessee have been made possible through partnerships between local and state governments, reflecting a collaborative approach to bridging the digital divide.
Overall, the grants and investments in broadband infrastructure are critical for bringing reliable and high-speed internet access to rural communities in Tennessee, improving education, communication, and economic growth.