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March 20, 2018 | Tom Ballard

Yesterday’s “Tennessee Broadband Summit” a walk down memory lane

Tennessee TNBy Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Nothing like an updated walk down memory lane.

Nearly three decades ago during my first career at the University of Tennessee (UT), I was privileged to be integrally involved in several strategic telecommunications initiatives. One was the Telecommunications Applications Partnership, an alliance with BellSouth (now known as AT&T) that was focused on helping communities and enterprises understand advanced telecommunications technologies and take advantage of them. Two others involved leading the development of a UT statewide videoconferencing network and being a key partner with the State of Tennessee and the Tennessee Board of Regents in developing a statewide backbone network.

Yesterday, the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development joined forces with Broadband USA, an initiative of the National Telecommunication and Information Administration, to host a one-day summit focused on the importance of new alliances that facilitate broadband deployment to underserved communities and creating partnerships that help improve access for all Tennesseans.

The parallel between the factors that spurred the 1990s initiatives and the discussions yesterday were so similar in spite of the rapid advances that have occurred in telecommunications technology itself. If you remember ISDN, I don’t have to say much more. We thought a T1 backbone would be huge; fiber to a home or business was something that existed only in our wildest dreams.

Nearly 30 years ago, we were talking about extending both credit and non-credit courses to students via distance learning technologies and building a network across the Volunteer State with the equivalent of a railroad spur line into more rural communities. At yesterday’s “Tennessee Broadband Summit – Creating Partnership to Ensure Access for All,” the recurring themes were very similar – addressing workforce needs, serving underserved groups, ensuring that our youth have access to the educational resources they need to succeed, and forging alliances with what would have been considered an unlikely partner not too long ago.

One important difference between the 1990s and 2018 is the nearly one-year old “Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act.” The nuances of the new law, passed by the Tennessee General Assembly last year, were captured in this article from last October. In essence, the act committed to $10 million annually in state funding over three years to help incentivize pilot projects and other initiatives to deploy broadband to rural areas of the state.

And, in what could only be described as ironic timing, something referred to as the “Administration Amendment” was introduced yesterday in the Tennessee General Assembly. It is an annual ritual where the sitting Governor looks at tax collections during the current year and new or expanded needs and submits a bill to amend the budget that he submitted in late January to address those new priority items.

Governor Bill Haslam stopped by the Summit just before lunch yesterday to tell the attendees that the amendment for the FY2018-19 budget will include an additional $5 million – a 50 percent increase – for broadband deployment projects serving rural areas.

How cool was that? The 175 or so attendees at the Summit were most appreciative.

The program featured several speakers and five panels exploring everything from an overview of several new partnerships to the roles that various providers see themselves playing, pilot programs underway to help address various needs, and funding of inclusion and skills programs.

Two familiar names to many readers played roles on two of the panels, describing initiatives they are spearheading to serve distinct populations.

  • Stephen Jenkins, Director of Entrepreneurship at the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center, described how his organization’s “Etsy Craft Entrepreneurship Program,” described in this recent biz article, is helping makers in rural communities establish online businesses. And, what do those businesses need? Robust, reliable internet access.
  • Sammy Lowdermilk, Program Manager for the Digital Equity Team at The Enterprise Center in Chattanooga, discussed how his organization has secured funding for “Tech Goes Home,” its digital equity program, as well as several other initiatives that serve underserved parts of the community.

We’ll have some more snippets from the Summit later.

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