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VOL. 133 | NO. 166 | Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Bredesen Seeks Rural Broadband Access Through TVA

Special to The Daily News

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Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen is calling for congressional action enabling the Tennessee Valley Authority to deliver broadband internet access to rural parts of the state, a plan his opponent, U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, says would be “anti-competitive.”

In a gathering with Chattanooga business and political leaders, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate pointed out Hamilton County has nearly full coverage while neighboring counties such as Marion and Sequatchie have large gaps in broadband connectivity. Shelby County and adjacent areas such as Tipton County are in a similar situation, but Comcast received an $850,000 state grant in early 2018 to expand broadband in Tipton.

Running against Republican Rep. Blackburn to fill the seat being vacated by Sen. Bob Corker, Bredesen pointed out TVA has the technical expertise, management and financial strength to add broadband access to its power supply structure.

Phil Bredesen

“And wouldn’t it be a natural kind of thing to say: Why doesn’t the TVA sort of get back in as a driver of economic development in rural areas?” Bredesen said.

TVA, a corporate agency of the federal government, provides electricity to business customers and local power companies serving 9 million people in almost all of Tennessee and six other states. It also provides flood control, navigation and land management on the Tennessee River system and offers help to state and local government with economic development and job creation.

Backing federal grants for broadband expansion, Blackburn criticizes Bredesen’s idea, saying it puts government in direct conflict with the private sector.

“Broadband as a utility is an anti-competitive solution that will create a government monopoly and raise taxes,” she said in a statement. “We should be focusing on implementing Gov. (Bill) Haslam’s broadband bill, which will facilitate broadband expansion by putting forth ideas such as allowing existing electric co-ops to form public private partnerships. We need to create a business-friendly environment that encourages competition, as opposed to one that suppresses it.”

Marsha Blackburn

Blackburn, a Franklin resident, says her campaign is concentrating on “free-market solutions” and points out the U.S. Chamber of Commerce endorsed her for the Senate seat because of her pro-business philosophy.

But during his pitch in Chattanooga, Bredesen argued the nation has lost its ability to take on major infrastructure projects, even referring to a Republican president’s success in expanding the nation’s transportation system.

“You know, when (President) Dwight Eisenhower wanted to build roads, he proposed the interstate highway system and had a road map that looked like its first incarnation and didn’t say, ‘Oh, let’s give private businesses a tax credit for the roads,’ and he didn’t say let’s have a project grant program or something or other. He said, ‘Let’s build the roads,’” Bredesen told the group.

In contrast, a recent Blackburn op-ed said the commercial spectrum should be freed up and the permit process streamlined rather than turning broadband expansion over to the government.

Blackburn pointed toward legislation signed recently by President Donald Trump to keep states and local entities from getting in the way of broadband expansion through high fees and bureaucracy.

TVA is building an enhanced fiber network to improve connections to its transmission facilities in seven states, according to spokesman Scott Gureck, but it isn’t entering the broadband business.

“Our fiber network is designed to support our own power system needs,” Gureck said. “We do have a long history of working with other companies, including local power companies and commercial information suppliers to provide access to a portion of the unused capacity that is built into our fiber system. As the enhanced system is completed over the next several years, it is likely this type of partnership will continue.”

President Trump and President Barack Obama both proposed selling TVA’s assets on the private market, with Trump’s current budget plan including the sale of the utility to fund his infrastructure plan.

Both Obama and Trump ran into opposition from state and congressional leaders, with federal lawmakers recently arguing TVA has helped create or retain 400,000 jobs and $48 billion in capital investment in the last five years regionwide.

Legislation sponsored by state Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, passed the General Assembly in 2017 offering $45 million through grants and tax credits over three years to private companies to encourage broadband expansion to unserved homes and businesses. It also allows electric co-ops to start offering broadband access.

When the legislation passed, 13 percent of the state lacked access to broadband, a high-speed form of internet service, and 34 percent of rural residents lacked coverage at federally recognized minimum standards. An amendment to the legislation lowered the speed of uploading and downloading to match the federal minimums.

When the legislation passed, Norris said, northeast and northwest Shelby County have some “underserved” areas. And Covington Mayor Justin Hanson said high-speed internet connection would be “huge” for the city’s industries, which he called the backbone of the economy.

The state made grants totaling nearly $10 million this year to companies such as Comcast for Tipton County and Aeneas Communication, which received $190,000 to serve portions of Hardeman County.

The Economic and Community Development Department also made 52 digital literacy and broadband adoption grants early this year to libraries statewide, including the Memphis Public Library and Information Center. These go toward computer training for basic computer skills, job marketing and exposing youth to science and technology skills, in addition to providing devices and hardware for access within the libraries.

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