During the pandemic, education has increasingly relied on virtual learning, which significantly impacts the ability of students without reliable broadband access to engage in school.

An estimated 194,000 homes — approximately 432,627 Tennesseans — do not have minimum high-speed internet service. A 2018 Pew Research Center survey indicated that 25 percent of Black students and 24 percent of students in households making less than $30,000 a year were sometimes or often unable to complete homework due to a lack of reliable internet connection or computer device — commonly referred to as the “homework gap.”

As COVID-19 highlights the critical importance of adequate access to broadband services, the latest report from the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR) assesses the current state of broadband access in Tennessee. The report identifies gaps in access and looks at the struggles of unserved and underserved communities.

While the state continues to assess broadband access, it must focus on a data-driven strategy to drive infrastructure investments, develop approaches to gather more accurate broadband coverage data, and increase rates of adoption and access.

Inaccurate Data Hinders Expansion Of Coverage And Adoption

Policymakers and communities must consider access and adoption.

  • Access = whether broadband services are available to a particular community
  • Adoption = whether residents subscribe to or purchase the available broadband services (often related to affordability of services)

The mapping of broadband coverage presents a challenge. Tennessee, like most states, uses data from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which considers any census block where a provider reports service to be available to at least one location in that block as fully served but does not show if service is accessible to or adopted by all locations. This overreporting makes it difficult to identify gaps and leaves an inaccurate count of Tennessee students who lack coverage.

The TACIR report offers recommendations to address these challenges:

  • Develop the state’s own coverage maps with address-level data, similar to efforts underway in Georgia
  • Increase state and local funding for libraries and schools to facilitate broadband adoption and short-term access in communities
  • Increase state investments in the broadband grant program to accelerate broadband expansion to more unserved areas
  • Link new incentives for broadband providers to expansions in coverage
  • Eliminate or ease territorial restrictions on electric cooperatives and electric systems, with guardrails to protect ratepayers

Short-Term Solutions Are Not Enough

There have been efforts to address broadband issues across communities, especially to support student learning during the pandemic. In July 2020, the Tennessee Department of Education established a $50M grant to support districts’ internet-capable device strategies. T-Mobile partnered with TDOE to provide internet to students as part of Project 10 Million. Hamilton County Schools engaged in partnerships with local organizations to provide internet access for online learning. While these commitments help tackle the immediate challenge of continuing the school year, a statewide investment in sustainable, long-term strategies is needed.

Progress In Tennessee Is Behind Other States

The Broadband Accessibility Act of 2017 established grants and financial incentives to invest in broadband for unserved and underserved communities while enabling local governments to ease regulatory barriers to such investments. Since 2017, the Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Grant has resulted in public and private investments of $88.7 million in 39 projects. Despite these efforts, Tennessee fell in state rankings of access (29th to 34th) and adoption (19th to 31st) between 2014 and 2018. Ongoing efforts in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Maine demonstrate how other states are positioning themselves as innovative leaders in this area.

Continuing To Improve Broadband Services In Tennessee Communities

Cost estimates to deliver coverage to all unserved and underserved Tennessee households range from $32 million to $354 million, but Tennessee is poised for progress. In his February 2021 State of the State address, Governor Bill Lee committed to expanding broadband access, proposing a $200M investment in broadband initiatives. With improved coverage data and continued support for investments like this, Tennessee can deliver broadband and enable all students to succeed in an increasingly technology-reliant environment.

Kevin Brown is a graduate fellow at SCORE. Peter Tang is SCORE’s director of research.

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