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Tennessee Broadband Study

The State of Tennessee recently undertook the biggest investigation into broadband that I’ve seen from any state. More than 23,000 homes and businesses participated in the study process. What the study found was very familiar to those of us who work every day with broadband issues.

The genesis of the report was from a number of meetings held around the state by Randy Boyd, the new state Commissioner of Economic and Community Development. He reported that during his numerous ‘listening’ sessions around the state that the issue raised the most was about lack of access to broadband. This showed him that the state has a big broadband problem and led to this report.

The report asked what the definition of broadband ought to be in the state. The settled on the 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload used by the FCC. The study showed that 71% of homes with speeds at or above 25 Mbps said they had enough speed while only 48% of homes with 10 Mbps or less said they had enough speed. They discovered that upload speeds matter to businesses and that 3 Mbps seemed to be the minimum threshold for business-level service.  Possibly the most important finding in the study was a warning that the use of bandwidth continues to grow dramatically and that any definition of broadband will need to be continually increased in the future.

The study looked at actual broadband utilization in the state. They determined that 125,000 people in the state have no access to wireline broadband. The report also found that:

  • 69% of businesses and 76% of homes don’t have access to 25 Mbps broadband.
  • Competition means better speeds. For businesses, areas with only one facility-based ISP averaged 22.5 Mbps while areas with three ISPs averaged 43.8 Mbps.
  • 54% of households were connected with the slowest technologies – DSL, cellular wireless, satellite and dial-up.
  • They found that half of households that chose not to buy broadband cite the cost of broadband as their barrier to buying it.

The consultants hired by the state were asked to estimate how much it would cost to build broadband to all of those that didn’t have it. They estimated that it would cost $1.26 billion to build fiber to areas that today have broadband speeds less than 10/1 Mbps. They estimated it would cost $1.72 billion to build fiber to areas that don’t have 25/3 Mbps broadband.

They also looked at the cost of a fixed wireless network and those costs were $1 billion for places with less than 10/1 Mbps broadband and $1.36 billion for those without 25/3 broadband. Those estimates seem high to me. But they might include building a lot of backbone fiber to feed towers and also take into consideration the rugged terrain in much of the state.

The report is concluded by looking for solutions. The report recommended that the state has to get involved if it wants to help to bring broadband everywhere. And so it recommends the following as necessary for the state’s involvement:

  • Strong public leadership that champions broadband
  • Formation of a state broadband office or similar agency
  • Need to find ways to promote effective public-private partnerships
  • Public seed funding and grant programs to encourage investment in broadband
  • Transparency
  • Proper planning and due diligence

This study looked at broadband in Tennessee at a much more granular level than is done by various federal studies. Tennessee is a diverse state and is a mixture of big cities and rural back roads, much of it with rough terrain. But looking at 23,000 homes and businesses represents a big sample of the state and adds validity to the findings. Like a lot of Appalachia, Tennessee has more houses using older technologies for broadband than other parts of the country.

It will be interesting to see if the state acts on this report. Normally this kind of report is followed by a lot of lobbying by the big telcos and cable companies to discredit the results. The conclusions of the report are dead on. As much as governments might sit and hope that the commercial sector will somehow solve their broadband problems, we know in rural America that this will largely not happen. If a state wants to bring broadband to rural residents it must get involved – and the recommended solutions have proven to be effective in states like Minnesota.

3 replies on “Tennessee Broadband Study”

In the absence of a federal plan these state efforts are doing a lot of good. After the grants awards this year the Minnesota DEED grants will have funded somewhere between $100M and $150M of fiber construction, depending upon the matches made by the operators. The rural areas getting these grants are happy the state didn’t wait for a federal plan.The shame is that there aren’t many other states doing this and I hope Tennessee follows up on this report.

These state efforts are a drop in the bucket relative to the need. I get the glass partially full argument but this is just a sip. Meanwhile, the nation falls further behind each year and is already 25 years short of where it should be today.

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