On a recent trip from Nashville to Chattanooga, I noted that the internet access was sporadic. For many Tennessee residents, access to broadband remains limited. Tennessee residents will benefit from Gov. Bill Lee’s and Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Stuart McWhorter’s announcement in September that the state will award $446,770,282 in grants for the expansion of internet access across the state. These are the types of efforts that Lee will need to continue to lead on in order to expand broadband access to unserved homes and businesses across the state.
Broadband access is needed for vital everyday activities, including accessing email, downloading files, streaming video content, video conferencing, accessing online educational- and health-related resources, and obtaining vital health care services via telehealth, to name just a few. For telehealth virtual visits with health care providers, sufficient bandwidth is required to handle video streaming. This is an important consideration especially for older adults and those in rural communities who may not have ready access to health care services.
Additionally, enabling access simultaneously for more than one device (such as laptop, tablet and smartphone) per household is another consideration to ensure the minimum download speed (megabits per second, or Mbps) needed for adequate performance. The Federal Communications Commission’s website provides a household broadband guide that compares minimum Mbps needs.
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According to the website BroadbandNow, Tennessee ranks 22nd among states in its annual rankings of internet coverage, speed and availability. The U.S. has more than 2,878 internet service providers, with Tennessee being served by 229 providers. Having reliable broadband access is essential for Tennessee families and businesses. According to a recent report by the state Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, it is estimated that more than 400,000 Tennessee residents are not able to obtain broadband service as there are no service providers in their area.
In 2021, the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations advocated that the state join other states in creating a broadband availability map. Once complete, the map can be used for state broadband funding decisions as well as serve as a community planning resource. The map will include information, searchable by address, for all 95 of Tennessee’s counties by outlining broadband availability, speeds and technology types.
According to Martin Penny, AARP Tennessee associate state director of advocacy, expanding high-speed internet is a top priority for the group, which has worked with lawmakers and state officials to reinforce the importance to older Americans of internet access for social interaction, education, business opportunities and telehealth. AARP is also promoting the federal Affordable Connectivity Program, which offers low-income users up to $30 a month in savings on their internet bill (up to $75 for those living on tribal lands), plus up to $100 off a computer purchase (see details at aarp.org/acp and fcc.gov/acp).
The governor and other state officials are to be commended for leading the way on broadband access across the state. As Lee begins his second term, I hope he will continue to lead on broadband and encourage service providers throughout the state to implement a plan for expanding access to all Tennessee residents.
Ruth Kleinpell is a member of the AARP Tennessee Executive Council, a volunteer-led advisory group that helps determine the priorities and program focus that affect communities statewide.