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Tennessee to invest $447 million in broadband infrastructure

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Tennessee plans to invest well over $400 million in grant funds to expand broadband internet access in unserved areas.

Governor Bill Lee and Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development commissioner Stuart McWhorter detailed the $446,770,282 in grant funding Monday. Lee said these grants will give rural communities the chance to grow through the funding of new infrastructure, and still more going towards broadband adoption programs and digital literacy efforts.

“People are moving to Tennessee from across the nation in record numbers, and we have an obligation to prepare our state for continued growth,” Lee said. “Our strategic investments in broadband infrastructure will ensure our rural communities are connected and have every opportunity to thrive.”

The program received 218 grant applications, requesting over $1.2 billion for this initial round, and accepted 75 applications with 36 electrical and telephone cooperatives, local municipalities, private providers and cable companies across the state. These must be completed within three years.

These grants will provide broadband access to more than 150,000 unserved homes and businesses across 58 counties.

“To achieve economic growth and prosperity, it’s imperative that Tennessee’s communities have the proper infrastructure in place,” McWhorter said. “Thanks to the $447 million awarded in funding, broadband access will be available to 36 grantees with 75 projects across 58 Tennessee counties, and we look forward to seeing how these grants spur further success among each community.”

Groups receiving grants will put in around $331 million in matching funds to complete these projects, making for a combined investment of $778 million in new broadband infrastructure projects across the state.

Several groups serving residents of northwest Tennessee will be benefiting from these grants, including:

  • $860,236.23 for Dickson Electric Department, which serves parts of Houston County
  • $2,071,780.49 for Gibson Electric Membership Corporation, which serves parts of Obion County
  • $5,385,719.50 for Peoples Telephone Company, which serves parts of Henry and Benton counties
  • $12,326,355.30 for West Kentucky Rural Telephone Cooperative Corporation, which serves parts of Weakley County

A 2020 report published by the Federal Communications Commission said one in six rural Tennesseans lacks access to broadband internet.

The U.S. Department of the Treasury previously defined “unserved areas” as those without access to a wireless connection capable of minimum speeds of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload. But now, due to the increasing demands, any connection providing lower than 100 Mbps download speed and 20 Mbps upload speed is now considered “unserved.”

“Tennessee has experienced considerable growth across all regions of our state over the past decade,” said Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville. “Through this significant investment in our broadband infrastructure, more citizens will have the option to access high-speed broadband services at work, in their homes and in schools.”

McWhorter’s agency has awarded nearly $120 million in broadband grants through state and federal funding to serve more than 140,000 Tennessee households since 2018.

Funding comes through the Tennessee Emergency Broadband Fund – American Rescue Plan, which utilizes a portion of the state’s COVID-19 pandemic relief funds. Tennessee’s Fiscal Stimulus Accountability Group earmarked $500 million in broadband funding from this program, with an additional disbursal of nearly $50 million going to broadband adoption and digital literacy efforts.

A native of western Kentucky, Operle earned his bachelor's degree in integrated strategic communications from the University of Kentucky in 2014. Operle spent five years working for Paxton Media/The Paducah Sun as a reporter and editor. In addition to his work in the news industry, Operle is a passionate movie lover and concertgoer.
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