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VOL. 38 | NO. 8 | Friday, February 21, 2014

Broadband access seen as job creation tool

By Hollie Deese

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Corey Johns, executive director of Connected Tennessee, need only look over his shoulder to see what areas of the state are underserved by broadband.

-- Lyle Graves | Nashville Ledger

It’s hard to imagine, with the proliferation of wireless connectivity, personal devices and constant data exchange, but there are Tennesseans who don’t have access to the Internet and don’t think the Internet has anything to offer them.

Since 2007, Connected Tennessee has aimed to change all that.

Connected Tennessee works with technology-related businesses, government entities, universities and nonprofit organizations to improve economic development and enhance the lives of citizens in the state by speeding up the technology landscape.

The group’s mission is to improve all areas of life in Tennessee with widespread access, adoption and use of broadband.

“We feel like the quality of life as well as economic development and job opportunities are better the more folks have access to modern telecommunications networks and modern technology,” says Corey Johns, executive director of Connected Tennessee.

“And certainly the other side of that is having the skills and the abilities to market themselves to the workforce, to secure a job that requires those tech skills, or start a tech company.

“Basically, support the modernization of digitization of our economy to make sure we keep Tennessee vibrant from an employment standpoint,’’ he adds.

Adoption and access

In 2005 the Tennessee General Assembly formed a state broadband task force to examine the technology landscape in the state. The task force’s 2007 recommendations led to the formation of Connected Tennessee.

“A lot of what was found was that there was a growing digital divide in Tennessee, and there are really two aspects to that,” Johns says. “There is the access side, and there’s also the adoption side.”

In terms of access, there was a gap between the rural areas of the state and the urban or suburban areas in terms of access to high-speed Internet service. And in some instances, there were rural areas that had better access than some urban areas, creating a mixed bag of who could access and who couldn’t access high-speed networks.

As for residential broadband adoption, 43 percent of Tennesseans subscribed to broadband Internet service in 2007, trailing the national average by five points. Comparatively, 68 percent of Tennesseans were subscribers by late 2012, and computer ownership grew from 71 percent to 79 percent.

“We’ve made steady gains, and in 2011 we not only met but surpassed the national average and have remained ahead ever since,” Johns says.

Since the group’s launch in 2007, Johns says they have documented over $264 million in federal broadband infrastructure dollars that have been afforded to the state for various programs to bring new or better broadband service to Tennessee.

“We were the second highest state in the nation under the USDA’s broadband infrastructure program which was funded under the recovery act,” Johns says.

“Those dollars primarily went to rural telephone cooperatives. A lot of areas, particularly in the Cumberland Plateau, we are seeing fiber optics build out as a result of that,’’ he adds. “And even places like Johnson County, it’s not easy to get there, and we have a provider currently building a fiber design network using those dollars.

“It involves a lot of plant expansions in West Tennessee from fixed wireless providers. That technology works a little better for the flatter terrain than it does in the mountainous terrain of the East Tennessee.”

Barriers to broadband

Cost – devices plus monthly subscriptions – is a big consideration for getting Tennesseans online.

“We have some partnerships in place with a couple of other nonprofits to place refurbished machines at low costs into the hands of the folks who may be looking to bridge the digital divide but may not have the means,” Johns says, adding desktop computers can be sold for $150 and two different types of laptops for under $235.

Programs are also available for those needing an affordable Internet subscription.

“Here in the Nashville area, we have a partnership in place that can help folks access fixed wireless broadband at $10 a month if they are non-adopters.”

Comcast also has the Internet Essentials program for families who qualify for free or reduced lunch for school age students and who aren’t current Comcast customers. The cost is $9.99 a month for the life of that child’s academic career.

Since Connected Tennessee’s launch, cost as a barrier has decreased from 23 percent to 15 percent.

In a survey Connected Tennessee conducted to find out why Tennesseans weren’t online, some said they didn’t subscribe to broadband because there’s nothing that they want or need to do that requires them to be on the Internet.

“That indicates to me that they don’t really understand what they can do on the Internet,” Johns says.

Why it matters to all of us

To those who simply eschew the Internet as a non-necessity, Johns says being online creates a more effective community with improved health care, better schools, a more efficient government and a vibrant business community.

“Less than half of Tennesseans were adopting high-speed Internet connection in 2007. Think about the ramifications of that,” Johns says.

“Someone who isn’t a broadband adopter probably doesn’t have the skills and probably aren’t starting a tech business or improving their employment opportunities by improving their technology-oriented skill set.”

As telecommunications networks expand across the state, Connected Tennessee addresses those digital skills.

“There are a lot of remote or telework opportunities that folks in our rural communities can do that don’t necessarily require them to relocate or commute long distances into an urban area, so that’s an important part of our strategy for keeping our rural Tennessee counties vibrant and healthy and fighting back against the rural flight.”

He gives the example of Perry County, which in 2009 had the third highest unemployment rate in the nation at 29 percent due to an auto parts plant closing.

Connected Tennessee implemented a rural job skills training program that took technology illiterate people and provided them with enough basic training that they could be placed into jobs that were waiting on them, like customer service call center type jobs.

“When I first joined the team, one of my talking points was that there is virtually no area in our life that isn’t impacted by access to technology and broadband except religion,” Johns says. But since his move from Knoxville to Nashville, Johns has even had to amend even that as he keeps up with his old church through podcasts and live-stream sermons.

“Broadband and technology are impacting and improving - and in some ways complicating - every aspect of our lives,” he says. “We are transitioning into a truly digital economy and community, and that’s going to make it even more important as applications improve and become more sophisticated.”

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