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By Chris Gregory, Managing Editor

High-speed Internet throughout Trousdale County could be one step closer to reality after Monday’s passage of the Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act.

The Tennessee House of Representatives voted 93-4 for passage of the bill, which was one of Gov. Bill Haslam’s legislative priorities this year. Having already passed the Senate by a 31-0 vote, the bill now heads to Haslam for his signature.

“More than 800,000 Tennesseans don’t have access to broadband, and one in three businesses identified it as essential to selecting their location. Spurring deployment in our rural, unserved areas will open them up to economic investment and growth,” Haslam said in a press statement.

Photo courtesy of pixabay.com

“It’s not a perfect bill, but it blazes a trail,” added State Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, who co-sponsored the bill. “This has been a very hot topic for rural areas all across the state.

“Broadband is infrastructure that is needed for people, in their businesses and in their homes.”

The Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act provides $45 million over three years in grants and tax credits for service providers to assist in making broadband available to unserved homes and businesses It also makes grant funding available to the state’s local libraries to help residents improve their digital literacy skills and maximize the benefits of broadband. Perhaps even more importantly for Trousdale County, the plan permits Tennessee’s private, nonprofit electric cooperatives to provide retail broadband service.

“We are very pleased that the General Assembly has passed Governor Haslam’s broadband legislation,” said Paul Thompson, Executive Vice President and General Manager of Tri-County. “Tri-County Electric looks forward to accomplishing what we’ve been working on with local government officials and community leaders since 2014, bringing broadband to Trousdale County! We have begun design work and are looking at financial models, but are waiting for additional information from the State of Tennessee on regulations, registrations, etc.”

County government had tried to partner with Tri-County last year to start offering broadband service, but a ruling from the state comptroller’s office halted those efforts. This new legislation reopens that door, something County Mayor Carroll Carman was excited to see.

“I think they will be poised to jump on this and move us forward,” Carman said.

“As to how soon, it depends on where you’re at. If the wires are already on the pole, you’ll be quick. If it’s 20 miles to get to you, it may be a while.”

Tennessee currently ranks 29th in the U.S. for broadband access, with 34 percent of rural Tennessee residents lacking access at recognized minimum standards.

The legislation came after a year of study and stakeholder conversations by the administration. In July 2016, the Department of Economic and Community Development released a commissioned study assessing broadband in Tennessee and options for increasing access and utilization. In addition, a report issued by the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR), which completed extensive work on the subject of broadband accessibility and adoption, significantly contributed to Haslam’s broadband proposal.

Reach Chris Gregory at 615-374-3556 or cgregory@hartsvillevidette.com