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VOL. 41 | NO. 14 | Friday, April 07, 2017

Legislature passes rural broadband bill

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NASHVILLE (AP) — The Tennessee legislature on Monday passed a bill that could make it easier for rural areas to get access to the internet amid concerns that it doesn't do enough to get high-speed access across the state.

The bill, named the Broadband Accessibility Act of 2017, was pushed by Gov. Bill Haslam as a way to help the economy in rural Tennessee.

The measure clears the way for nonprofit electric co-ops to start providing both internet and video service. It also gives $45 million in grants and tax credits to co-ops and internet service providers, like AT&T and Comcast, to encourage the development of internet in areas that don't have it.

The Senate version of the bill passed last week.

A last minute-amendment was tacked on to the measure that dropped the internet speed requirement for grant eligibility from download speeds from 25 megabits per second to 10 megabits per second. The Federal Communications Commission defines broadband speed as 25 megabits per second. The amendment decreased the required upload speed from 3 megabits per second to 1 megabit per second.

Before passing the bill, lawmakers argued whether the incentive money would even come close to getting Tennessee connected and whether the government should even step in.

The sponsor of the legislation, David Hawk, R-Greeneville, said the bill was just a start.

Rep. Andy Holt-R-Dresden, said the $45 million was a "drop in the bucket" to what it would cost to get internet access across the state. Holt thought the government should stay out of it and continue to deregulate to foster competition.

But Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, said that while he generally agrees that government should get out of the way of private business, he said lawmakers must act when citizens are paying taxes and internet companies are not serving areas.

"No. 1, when we needed electricity in rural parts of Tennessee, we went to the (Tennessee Valley Authority) or rather the TVA came to us," Hill said. "When we needed an interstate highway system, the federal government stepped in and provided that over many, many years. When it came to clean, drinkable water in the rural areas, initially, the government had to step in."

He noted that the sole internet and telephone carrier in his region has refused to provide internet in his southern district and has no intention of doing so.