Scaling the Digital Divide

Co-ops hope to topple the broadband barrier

At the TECA legislative conference, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam discusses his bill to lift broadband restrictions on electric co-ops. (Photo By: TECA)
At the TECA legislative conference, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam discusses his bill to lift broadband restrictions on electric co-ops. (Photo By: TECA)

Dan Rodamaker has a nagging concern: How long will his co-op members reside on the wrong side of the digital divide?

Each year Gibson EMC hosts district meetings and, over platters of barbeque sandwiches, farmers and residential members urge the co-op to bring broadband to their area.

One member told how his son had to travel an hour from his home outside Clinton, Kentucky, to Paducah, Kentucky, for access to high-speed internet just to apply to colleges. Another member studying for a master’s degree described driving 15 miles from Gadsden, Tennessee to Jackson, Tennessee, for enough broadband to download her college coursework.

“We feel our students are falling behind their urban peers,” said Rodamaker, president and CEO of the Trenton, Tennessee, co-op that serves nearly 39,000 meters in Tennessee and Kentucky.

Gibson EMC members are not alone. One-third of Tennesseans are unserved or underserved when it comes to access to the high-speed information highway, according to the state. Most live in rural areas that are powered by electric co-ops. Yet state law prohibits co-ops from providing members with retail broadband.

That could change as early as this year with the help of co-ops and lawmakers working together.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has offered a bill to lift the broadband restrictions on co-ops. At Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association’s legislative rally Jan. 31 in Nashville, Haslam discussed his plan to develop rural broadband with help from co-ops.

“Our proposal uses you—folks who are already in the community, who have those relationships,” Haslam told co-op leaders, adding, “I’m really glad you are here today. If you have an interest, it matters that you show up and represent that interest.”

The governor’s measure recognizes electric co-ops “as uniquely situated to assist in bridging the broadband accessibility gap” and provides $45 million in grants and tax credits over three years to help them get the job done.

“Allowing Tennessee’s private, non-profit electric co-ops to provide retail broadband service and investing $15 million in grants and tax credits annually will help spur deployment in rural unserved areas—opening them up to economic investment and job growth,” Haslam said in his State of the State address.

“If we’re serious about putting our rural counties on a level playing field, then opening up broadband access is one of the largest steps forward we can take.”

David Callis, executive vice president and general manager of TECA, lauded the governor’s Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act for acknowledging the role co-ops can play in expanding access to broadband.

“We are honored that the governor recognizes the deep roots co-ops have in rural and suburban Tennessee, and we look forward to working with the members of the 110th General Assembly to expand connectivity and opportunity,” Callis said.

TECA represents 23 electric co-ops that serve 2.5 million Tennesseans. The association is urging all its members to join its grassroots effort to encourage the General Assembly to pass the governor’s bill for rural broadband.

“We are excited about being able to improve the quality of life for our members—to help them meet the need not served by anyone,” said Rodamaker, adding that he is “quite hopeful” rural broadband legislation will win approval this spring.

“One out of three Tennesseans need a different solution than they have today,” he said. “Until that law clears, we are legally not able to provide a solution to their needs.”

Cathy Cash is a staff writer at NRECA.