The rules guiding expansion of rural broadband must be modernized, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai said during a visit to Middle Tennessee in April, when he met with members of the Tennessee Telecommunications Association.
The FCC has announced $500 million in support for rural broadband deployment, and Pai said the FCC wants more predictable, long-term support so rural communities served by small carriers are not “stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide.”
Rules governing expansion are important for TTA members, whose companies provide high-speed broadband and fiber to more than 136,000 rural residents and businesses across Tennessee.
U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, joined Pai at the meeting. “Our rural areas cannot have 21st-century economic development, 21st-century health care, 21st-century law enforcement or 21st-century education without high-speed broadband,” Blackburn said.
Levoy Knowles, executive director of TTA, said assistance through federal funding is paramount for TTA members.
“Our members are working and pouring everything they’ve got into getting rural Tennesseans connected,” Knowles says. “We are grateful to Chairman Pai and Congressman Blackburn for all the work they’ve done to see that we receive federal funding for our efforts. We are very appreciative that they joined us today to discuss these critical issues.”
TTA members have installed more than 21,000 miles of fiber in rural areas across the state, and by 2019, they will have spent more than $243 million to connect rural Tennesseans with gig-speed fiber.
Several issues were discussed at the meeting with Pai.
- With many rural hospitals closing, high-speed broadband and fiber connect patients and health care providers through rural telemedicine programs.
- Today’s teachers are moving from printed to electronic textbooks, meaning that rural students have a critical need for internet service so they can do homework.
- Internet service providers at the meeting said they appreciate the state and federal funds they receive to help make high-speed broadband and fiber available to more rural Tennesseans.
- Because there are fewer potential subscribers per mile of fiber, the economics of providing it to rural areas are challenging.
- Beyond profits, however, high-speed broadband and fiber are valuable tools to recruit businesses — and jobs — to rural areas and to retain those already located there.
- Rep. Blackburn said 50 percent of rural hospitals lack adequate internet access.
With rural hospitals closing and teachers moving to electronic textbooks, the need has never been greater for expanding rural broadband, Pai says.
“For better, healthier, more profitable communities, rural Americans need more access to high-speed broadband,” he says.