High-speed internet access for all is essential

If there was any remaining doubt as to the essential need for quality internet access, COVID-19 has eliminated it. With many schools in Tennessee reopening with remote learning, it reveals the failure to close a digital divide in the state where 92% of residents have adequate broadband access, but just over a quarter-million have none at all.

As with water and sanitary services, electricity and digital telephone, internet access at high broadband speeds is a modern-day necessity not just for entertainment purposes, but to be able to function as part of an ever-increasing digital world. It is as necessary for adults to do work as for children to learn, even outside the digital classroom.

Tennessee ranks 17th in the nation in broadband access. According to Broadband Now June numbers, 92.2% of residents have a broadband connection capable of 25 Mbps speeds or faster. Still, 492,000 people are left without a broadband connection that can deliver the same speeds. Even with 193 internet providers within Tennessee, 548,000 people have access to only one provider, and 274,000 people have no providers offering internet services at their places of residence.

Even locally, there is wide disparity in internet access. While 100% of Sullivan County residents and 98.2% of Washington County residents have access to high-speed internet, that drops to 73.6% in Hawkins County and 63.9% in Hancock County.

Connected Tennessee is the public-private partnership that has been working with technology-minded businesses, government entities, universities and nonprofit organizations to improve economic development and enhance quality of life by accelerating Tennessee’s technology landscape. Since 2010, nearly $4.5 million in federal grant funding has been awarded to the program, which has worked to collect broadband data and fuel development.

Beyond that, $15.9 million in federal grants have gone toward broadband infrastructure projects within the state.

More is needed.

High-speed internet is essential for accessing work, school, information and commerce, and the pandemic points to the need for a new federal and state initiative to expand the network to every community, every place of work and every home.

The marketplace cannot and will not solve this need because there is no incentive, absent profit, to extend access.

More than one-quarter of the rural U.S. population and almost one-third of those on tribal lands can’t access minimum-speed broadband. We have passed the point in societal evolution where this can be tolerated.

In dishing out more than a trillion dollars in pandemic relief with at least another trillion in debate, there is no excuse for failing to provide the estimated $50 billion to $60 billion that will bring the digital world to every home in America.

-The Kingsport Times-News