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Some Rural Residents Lack Broadband; Could TVA Become Their New ISP?


Phil Bredesen, the former Governor of Tennessee now running for U.S. Senate as a Democrat, has a proposal. If elected, he would work toward legislation allowing a governmental agency, the Tennessee Valley Authority, to provide broadband in underserved rural areas. His Republican opponent, U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn, agrees rural broadband is a big priority--but she favors free-market solutions. In this story, they discuss their points of view.


A Tennessee candidate for U-S Senate is talking to rural residents who lack broadband internet service… and proposing a new way for them to get connected.

Phil Bredesen, the former Tennessee governor, is the Democratic candidate in the current race to replace U-S Senator Bob Corker, who is retiring after November’s elections.

Both Bredesen and his opponent… Republican Marsha Blackburn… are talking about the LACK of broadband internet service in rural areas of the state. Some residents live in places where dial-up internet, or their cell phones, are the only options for getting online.

Bredesen’s idea… if he were elected… propose legislation that would allow the Tennessee Valley Authority to get rural residents hooked up. He traveled to Marion County to discuss his idea with business and community leaders, and spoke at a roundtable discussion.

BREDESEN: TVA seemed, to me, to be the perfect vehicle to do that. It's in its DNA. It started out as a rural development agency in the 1930s.

FILM CLIP: The dams, one after another, put the river in harness, were effective in providing the electric power needed in the early years of TVA. Though demand for power was constantly growing, hydroelectric generating plants were keeping up with the rising demand.

This is from a 1958 documentary about TVA. The agency’s original purpose included economic development. Today, the federal agency is primarily known as a power company. Bredesen says it could provide internet infrastructure as well.

BREDESEN: It's big enough and it has the technical and managerial expertise to pull off a big project like this. You know, these are, these are complicated things.

In Marion County, where Bredesen pitched his idea, fifteen percent of the population lacks broadband. In nearby Sequatchie County, almost half the residents lack it.

Bredesen asked for feedback from the couple dozen people he met with. Reactions were positive. Mark Griffith attended… he is Marion County’s superintendent of schools.

GRIFFITH: I’ve got approximately 10 schools, about 4,300 students.

Griffith sees firsthand how lack of reliable, high-speed internet access affects some of his students. They have to go to places like McDonalds, or put in extra classroom time, so they can do homework.

GRIFFITH: They get to school a lot earlier than they should, to be quite honest with you. Um, you know, and just, uh… we've got an amazing student body, but like I said, some of them struggle with those issues.

Bredesen’s opponent in the race for U-S Senate, Republican Marsha Blackburn, has also talked about rural broadband expansion being a priority. She’s a U-S Representative, and chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology. She talked about it last year in an interview with the Hudson Institute:

BLACKBURN: Broadband expansion is something that is a top of mind issue in my district. I have begun to say broadband is the principal infrastructure issue for the 21st century.

She’s NOT speaking out in favor of the TVA idea, however. In a statement to WUTC, she opposed the idea of broadband being treated as a utility. She called it an anticompetitive solution that will create a government monopoly and raise taxes. She says she’s focused on free-market solutions, with the government HELPING private companies. In a recent editorial in the Hartsville Vidette, she touted NEW federal legislation providing more bandwidth to wireless providers, and lowering access fees for private broadband deployment.

Federal grant and loan programs also exist to help private companies provide rural broadband service.

But Bredesen calls tax credits and PILOT projects “little nibbling-around-the-edges” things. He basically prefers a more get-it-done now-solution, saying “one of the things we’ve lost in this country is the ability to do big projects.”

TVA, a federal agency, providing rural internet service would certainly be a big government project.

BREDESEN: You know, it gives, it, gives kind of new life and a new challenge to a system that's largely built out at this point. They've got the power plants, they've got the power lines and so on, and they need a new challenge.

Bredesen’s idea resonated with the two dozen Tennesseans he met with in Marion County. It’s unclear whether voters across this red state will agree.