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Tennessee Scrambles to Keep Up with Broadband Needs During Pandemic

Brandon Hollingsworth, WUOT News

With many East Tennessee students resuming classes online and some residents still working from home, reliable internet access is more vital than ever. Yet for some, it’s either poor or non-existent, despite state efforts to boost broadband infrastructure.


In some rural East Tennessee counties, students are downloading their textbooks and assignments from a car in the school parking lot each morning. The uptick in residential demand has revealed weaknesses in the fiber optic network -- and not just in rural, low-income communities.


“Even service provided in cities isn’t as adequate as we’ve been led to believe,” said Jamie Greig, a University of Tennessee professor whose research has focused on rural broadband access in Tennessee. “We know even just anecdotally from UT’s experience of switching (classes) online in the spring... we have city residents who, even if they have broadband access, they have such poor-quality service that things like video conferencing have become a struggle.”


Greig, an assistant professor of agricultural communications at UT’s Herbert College of Agriculture, said a survey of its students revealed that 20 percent had trouble using online course content.


Have a class or a work meeting on Zoom? Broadband is key. It uses a range of frequencies to transmit information at speeds of at least 25 megabits per second when downloading, and at least 3 megabits per second uploading.


“I think one of the things the pandemic has really highlighted is how much we rely on online services for education -- or even just going online to pay your bill during a pandemic when going down to your post office, or going down to your bank, isn’t an option for you any more,” Greig said. “What this pandemic has really brought home to people is how many essential services, other than just entertainment, we get from the internet.”


Another example is telehealth. Many doctors and therapists switched to online appointments, and some people took COVID tests via Zoom.


“We know from the reduction in rural hospitals that we have an aging population in rural areas that now has less access to health care,” Greig said. According to the Tennessee Hospital Association, at least nine of the state’s rural hospitals have closed since 2012. That’s the second-highest rate among states.


“Especially in a pandemic where we are told to stay in our homes, then health care really does rely on this internet component,” Greig said.


Where are the weaknesses?


Thirty states have better broadband access than Tennessee, state officials have reported. 

That’s generally because of a combination of geography and sparse population, Greig said. Mountains make it very expensive to extend broadband in some parts of East Tennessee. In rural areas statewide, there are too few potential customers to entice private companies to invest in the infrastructure. As a result, low-income areas neighborhoods are often left behind, Greig said.


“If we look at counties close to Knoxville that really have poor internet connection, we don’t have to go far,” Greig said. “Go into Union, Grainger, Jefferson, Cocke counties, real parts of Sevier County. All these counties have relatively large areas where there is either no access (or) only one provider, so therefore there is usually high cost and not great service."


The aggregated broadband data makes counties like Sevier look pretty good, while in reality broadband service is concentrated around business districts.


“We know even from the wildfire that there are areas immediately outside of Sevierville that have very outdated telecommunications infrastructure, that were immediately cut off because they didn’t have access to emergency telecommunication systems,” said Greig, referring to wildfires that killed 14 people in Sevier County in 2016.


It’s hard to pin down accurately how many people can’t get broadband, even in Knox County. It appears from Federal Communications Commission data that 98 percent of Knox residents have broadband access. But that’s based on private companies’ reporting. If one company serves a single household in a census block, the entire block is shown as having broadband service, Greig said.


This means access may not be as widespread as it appears, despite the presence of about 15 broadband providers in Knox County, Greig added.


The current reporting also hides “negotiated non-compete zones” where large providers agree unofficially to divide up service territories so each maintains a geographic monopoly, Greig said. “Where you have handshake agreements, or larger providers that have got lobbying power to prevent other providers coming to the area, that’s where we start to see a lack of true competition,” he said.


In addition, some city residents can’t get broadband for economic reasons.


“Finances play a big role in access, not just whether or not a service provider is in an area,” Greig said. “This is something that really does affect urban populations that we don’t necessarily look at.”


While Knox County Schools has provided families with links to some “low-cost” broadband options, several are just the standard rate after a couple of free months. Others offer service for around $10 a month with streaming and data caps. But these are only open to families enrolled in federal programs for the poor, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) food program or the National School Lunch Program. And remember, many residents only have access to one of these providers, so they may not get to choose between deals.


There can also be other barriers to accessing these programs. As an example, Greig said families with an old debt to a cable company may now be refused broadband service, since one company may have a monopoly on both. In some cities, entire neighborhoods may be essentially blacklisted for bad credit, Greig said. And even when low monthly rates are available, they may be on the other side of a $120 connection fee.


Public utilities as broadband providers


Public utilities or electric cooperatives can enter the broadband market to provide more options. But Tennessee has limited their involvement: Utilities can provide broadband only to customers in the footprint of their electric grid. Many other states don’t do this. But Tennessee’s legislature passed a law to prevent it, citing concerns that electric utilities would put private broadband providers like Comcast or AT&T out of business.


The FCC initially used its authority to strike down the state law. But Tennessee and North Carolina sued, and a federal court of appeals ruled in favor of the states in 2016.


“I struggle to see a free market argument that says ‘We want to promote marketplace innovation through competition -- but not for these providers because they are too big,’” Greig said.


The global COVID-19 pandemic has led more people to regard broadband as a necessity similar to water and electricity.


Some public utilities, like the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga, have risen to the challenge of making local broadband more reliable and cheaper. Chattanooga’s broadband customers get (depending on the package they choose) from 300 megabit to 10 gigabit (10,000 megabit) speeds for both downloading and uploading. Rural areas with poor broadband access outside Chattanooga asked to have the service extended to them, before the state legislature intervened to stop it.


Chattanooga has become the regional gold standard, but smaller East Tennessee municipal utilities, like those in Morristown and Newport, are also offering broadband.


There are many advantages to a utility-based broadband model, Greig said: Electric utilities already have the poles, service trucks, technicians and customer service infrastructure needed.


“Also… often they have a longer-term revenue model,” he said. “So a lot of these organizations can also take the hit of a large initial up-front investment, and either have large cash reserves that are able to absorb that over a longer amount of time, or are willing to take a slower return on investment because they don’t have to create a profit for their shareholders.”


Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon made a campaign promise that she’d ask the Knoxville Utilities Board to offer broadband. KUB explained its decision not to follow Chattanooga’s lead in a white paper created in 2013. But the utility has continued to receive requests for broadband regularly, said Jamie Davis, KUB director of grid modernization.


“Historically, our position is that it’s probably not the thing for KUB to do,” he said, primarily because of the cost. It was also an unusual role for utilities at the time.


Davis said KUB is reconsidering because "the landscape has changed dramatically." Other utilities have provided successful models of how to do it. Plus, recent technological advances have provided a practical incentive: A strong fiber backbone would enable KUB to use more smart technology on its electrical grid, Davis said. This could make its service more reliable.


Also, from a philosophical perspective, “Broadband is starting to look more like a public utility,” Davis said. “The recent pandemic has shown just how important access to broadband can be. There is that digital divide. I think that’s another reason some folks in the public utility space have gotten into the business: Because they see it as an obligation to serve.”


A 2018 update to the KUB white paper noted that the utility was already concerned about the scant broadband in rural areas, since a large swath of its service territory is rural. KUB serves parts of rural counties outside Knox, particularly Union, Grainger, Jefferson and Sevier. FCC data show some of these counties have very poor broadband coverage; for example, only an estimated 67 percent of residents in Grainger County and 82 percent of those in Union have broadband access.


KUB conducted a customer survey in July to gauge interest in the service. Davis said a contractor is still evaluating the survey results. However, it’s clear that those who responded are interested in having more broadband options.


“Factually, you can look across our service area and see that folks just don’t have choice,” Davis said. “There’s either none, or one or two providers.”


Fountain City resident David Buchanan founded the community group KnoxFi in 2014 to advocate for municipal fiber, preferably by KUB. He said he and other KnoxFi members never saw the recent KUB survey, and he questioned how it was shared.


Buchanan is a technology consultant who provides residential computer repair. He said he started KnoxFi after helping many customers in Knox County who receive terrible internet service with a high price tag.


“Internet is so important, especially now when you’ve got a bunch of kids working on school from home,” Buchanan said.” A lot of times the companies have a monopoly, and a backlog on ‘affordable’ internet. And anyone who’s ever dealt with one of those companies knows you’re just a small speck of dust to them.” 


How to fund broadband


Even before the pandemic, broadband had become an important political issue in Tennessee. The Broadband Accessibility Act has now provided three years of grant funding, totalling about $44 million, for rural broadband expansion. The money went to a mix of private companies, municipal utilities and electric cooperatives.


A few weeks ago, Gov. Bill Lee announced another $61 million in emergency broadband grants, which will fund 62 projects using the state’s Coronavirus Relief allotment from the federal government.


In a public statement, Lee said, “The COVID-19 pandemic has only further elevated the importance of access to reliable, affordable broadband internet to facilitate telemedicine, distance learning, and telecommuting.”


Some federal grants for rural broadband are available through the FCC, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Appalachian Regional Commission. But it costs around $20,000 per mile to run broadband fiber, Greig said, so even these investments aren’t going to come close to closing the gap.


In the long run, Greig argues for a national broadband initiative modeled on the federal Interstate system or rural electrification under the New Deal.


“What America didn’t do was ask companies like Ford or Chevrolet to start building the roads,” he said. “What they realized was: Of course private companies… are going to focus on areas where they can get a significant return on investment. So we need to develop a plan that doesn’t rely on private companies doing the legwork.”


Greig said other key policies that would help expand broadband are:

  • Streamlining the permission process to attach new lines to existing poles.

  • Creating more shared fiber hubs, “trunk lines,” and neutral points to connect into them.

  • Allowing public utilities in Tennessee to provide broadband to underserved areas outside their part of the electricity grid.

He also pointed out a possible option in Tennessee: Adding broadband to the Tennessee Valley Authority’s mission. TVA has thousands of miles of fiber, but much of this network isn’t switched on. It exists to make energy distribution more efficient.


“If we re-examined TVA’s purpose, and maybe also gave TVA a new purpose of providing broadband, then there may be more incentive for TVA to use its vast resources and existing infrastructure to develop broadband access in the Tennessee Valley,” he said. He added that TVA has expressed interest in helping with this, but can’t because broadband isn’t part of its mandate.