- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 20, 2016

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - A survey of Tennessee residents and businesses has found that about 13 percent do not have access to broadband internet service.

The study was commissioned by the state Department of Economic and Community Development to determine the current state of broadband availability and to inform future options for improving access.

Randy Boyd, the state’s economic development commissioner, said in a phone interview that access to broadband is a key issue for businesses seeking to either locate or grow in Tennessee.

“Entrepreneurs today can do business anywhere in the world as long as they’re connected. But if they’re not connected they don’t have a chance,” he said.

The report shows that while broadband was available to nearly all households in urban areas, about one-third of people in rural areas are unable to connect to high-speed internet.

“That digital divide between urban and rural is something that we’ve got to solve, because our rural communities are already struggling to keep up,” he said. “And if they’re not connected, they’ll never catch up.”

The report adopts the Federal Communication Commission’s definition of broadband as meaning download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second. But the study also found that about more than three-quarters of households that had access to broadband have connection speeds below that threshold.

“There are a lot of people for a lot of reasons that aren’t actually fully utilizing the services they have,” Boyd said. “Where we may get the biggest benefit is that people who do have access fully utilize it.”

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam called the report a “starting point to advance the conversation” about high-speed internet in Tennessee. The governor said an internal working group will review the report and propose potential solutions to improve availability.

The Tennessee Municipal Electric Power Association said the report illustrates the need for city-owned utilities to be allowed to provide broadband in areas that are overlooked by commercial providers.

The report’s release comes as the state is appealing an FCC decision to overrule Tennessee and North Carolina laws that bar municipal utilities providers from offering broadband beyond their service areas. Private telecoms have argued that taxpayer-funded broadband ventures represent unfair competition, and state Attorney General Herbert Slatery’s office says that the federal government shouldn’t be allowed to supersede state laws on the subject.

Boyd said the report shows that there is more than just one approach to improving broadband access in the state.

“Municipals certainly can’t do it by themselves, telecoms can’t do it by themselves, the state can’t do it by themselves,” he said. “We’re all going to have to work together if we’re going to solve the problem.”

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