Panel discusses importance of “Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act”

ECD Conference 2017By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

The moderator of a panel on broadband access at Friday’s “Governor’s Conference on Economic and Community Development” admitted he was a skeptic initially about the need for that capability in rural communities.

“If you want broadband, move back to the city,” State Senator Mike Bell said he told a group six years ago during a meeting in Decatur. Earlier this year, he served as Senate sponsor of the “Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act,” a bill that had three key areas of emphasis – state funding to incentivize more deployment ($45 million over three years), deregulation that allowed electric cooperatives to enter the game, and enhanced educational programs.

It’s all about economic development . . . enabling communities and existing businesses to be more competitive, regardless of their geographic location, while also providing many other services to citizens, from education to healthcare. There’s also an additional factor. With every request for proposals from industrial prospects asking about broadband access, it’s no longer a desirable capability but an absolute requirement.

Bell moderated a lively discussion about the act and the way three different enterprises are responding to both the challenges and the opportunity. Panelists were:

  • William Bradford, President and Chief Executive Officer of United Communications, a Middle Tennessee-based provider of telecommunications services in both rural and urban areas;
  • Kim Sasser Hayden, Senior Manager of External Affairs for Comcast in Tennessee; and
  • Emily Sullivan, Vice President of Economic Development and Community Relations for Gibson Electric Membership Corporation (EMC) that serves a large area of rural Northwest Tennessee.

Sullivan put a distinct face on the challenge her cooperative and many others face, noting that about a quarter of its residences and nearly a third of its businesses do not have broadband installed. “We could not provide that capability to the premises (before the legislation passed),” she said. “We hope to be able to provide it under the act.”

All three panelists shared ways their enterprises are responding to the growing demand that is extremely capital intensive.

“We are starting to look at where things are going . . . where are the growth corridors,” Hayden said of Comcast’s more proactive rather than reactive approach. “Don’t assume we will not expand (to new areas) to serve new needs.”

Bradford described a unique approach that United has adopted.

“We’ve created a crowdsourcing for fiber model,” he said in citing a version of the tool that some start-up companies use to secure early capital. In the case of United, the approach is to see where the greatest customer demand exists.

“The heat map (that is created) helps prioritize our expansion plans,” Bradford explained, noting that there needs to be a committed customer base to warrant the investment.

Sullivan described a somewhat comparable approach that the Gibson EMC is taking. The cooperative has divided its service area into 27 zones and is using champions assigned to each area to assess and drive demand.

Both Bradford and Sullivan shared examples of innovative approaches to solving difficult deployment projects. Gibson EMC’s largest electric customer from a load perspective was in a very rural area that would have required a $250,000 investment to install fiber. Instead of trying to justify that expense, Gibson EMC found a partner to provide the telecommunications services and was able to leverage technology already in place at one of its nearby substations.

In Bradford’s case, United was asked to provide broadband capability to Henry Horton State Park in Chapel Hill. It was a costly investment, but was solved through an innovative arrangement. The City of Chapel Hill provided some funding to enhance visits to and rentals of rooms and cabins at the park, United deployed the fiber, and the State Ranger promised to expedite any governmental approvals required to install the network.

“Today, Henry Horton has full gigabit access, one of the first state parks in the country to do so,” Bradford proudly noted.

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