In today’s world, the internet is quickly becoming as vital as telephones, electricity, roads or water and sewer services – a fifth utility. We use it to stay connected and informed, to shop, to communicate with others. It’s an important tool for nearly every business, which puts any place without reliable broadband internet access at a disadvantage on many fronts.
In Trousdale County, about 30 percent of the population does not have access to reliable broadband. Almost 15-20 percent of the population of Smith and Wilson counties are without broadband internet. This affects the quality of life and the ability to attract and retain jobs in these counties. It’s not just a problem in Middle Tennessee, there are rural counties across Tennessee in the same predicament.
A century ago, when telephone and electric service was growing in importance in the same way that the internet is today, Tennessee faced a similar problem. It was often not economically feasible for a provider to invest in these services in more rural areas. And yet we considered it an important value in our democracy that every American have access to important infrastructure.
In Tennessee, the Tennessee Valley Authority helped to achieve this. Today, we know TVA mostly as a generator of electrical power. But when it was created in the 1930s, its original purpose was built around rural economic development and rural electrification. A primary commitment to extending vital infrastructure to the region’s rural areas was built in to TVA’s DNA from the start.
Eighty years later, we should ask TVA to step up again, this time with broadband internet access. The poor economics of covering rural areas means we can’t depend solely on commercial enterprises to take this on. Luckily, in Tennessee, we have the perfect semi-public vehicle to do so – TVA.
This would be a large, technically complex undertaking, and TVA has the financial, technical and leadership capabilities to pull it off. They have long-standing relationships with local electric distribution utilities and co-ops that can be an integral part of the effort. TVA is already, for their own use, in the process of investing $300 million in a strategic fiber initiative that can jump-start the process.
Existing broadband providers such as Comcast can be partners in this, as well, plugging in as TVA makes it possible to connect more spread out communities.
Congress has done some nibbling around the edges with rural broadband – modest grant programs, for example. But these won’t get the job done.
There was a time when America was willing to take on big, ambitious projects. In the 1950s, Dwight Eisenhower committed us to build an interstate highway system. He didn’t fool around the edges. He didn’t say, “Let’s do a tax credit here, some government grants over there.” He said, “We’re going to build an interstate highway system” and got it done.
It’s time for America to resurrect that confidence and willingness to do bold things. Putting TVA to work on making sure everyone in the Tennessee Valley can access our fifth utility is a great place to start. I’m applying for the job to be Tennessee’s U.S. senator and take this on.
Phil Bredesen is a businessman and entrepreneur running for the U.S. Senate seat for Tennessee that will be vacated by Sen. Bob Corker. Bredesen served two terms as Tennessee’s 48th governor from 2003-2011. He was mayor of Nashville from 1991-99. Prior to this, he was the CEO of a public health care company.