:Chattanooga; :Apr 16, 2009; :Metro/Region; :10


Grants to expand broadband

jgarrett@timesfreepress.com

Online: Hear Michael Ramage talk about expanding broadband. Read previous stories. Comment.

    Businesses, nonprofit organizations and local governments will be able to apply for billions of dollars in federal stimulus money to help expand broadband Internet access in rural areas.

    Tennessee may receive more than $150 million to improve broadband connections, officials said.

    “The goal is to provide service to unserved and underserved areas,” said Michael Ramage, executive director of Connected Tennessee, a Nashville nonprofit whose mission is expanding broadband access. “Ten percent of the state’s households don’t have access to broadband, mostly in rural Tennessee.”

    The federal stimulus package provides $7.2 billion to expand broadband access in the nation, officials said.

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture will receive $2.5 billion for rural utility services, and $4.7 billion will go to the National Communication and Information Administration’s Broadband Technology Opportunity Program, Mr. Ramage said.

    Nearly $4 billion will go to improving broadband infrastructure, he said.

    Mr. Ramage said his office held a meeting with more than 50 entities, including some from Southeast Tennessee, that are interested in applying for broadband funding. He said Connected Tennessee is working with anyone who wants to apply for the stimulus money.

    “There are still areas in Southeast Tennessee that are unserved and need to be served,” he said. “Every broadband provider in Southeast Tennessee is thinking about (applying for a grant).”

    Bledsoe Telephone Cooperative General Manager Greg Anderson said his company plans to apply.

    Eighty-seven percent of the company’s subscribers in Bledsoe County have broadband access, and all its customers in Sequatchie County do. But there aren’t enough actual subscribers to fund the costs of building broadband infrastructure, he said.

    A stimulus grant could provide the money to deploy broadband and ease the dependence on subscription revenue,

he said.

“It would provide the money to do what it is hard to justify from a business perspective now,” Mr. Anderson said.

    “The bottom line is, everyone wants broadband but no one wants to pay for it,” he said. “We are deploying broadband right and left, but the number of people subscribing to the service is not sufficient to sustain the business in the long run.”

    Details of the stimulus program are supposed to be complete by the beginning of May. The first grants are to be issued by fall and work can begin shortly after that, Mr. Ramage said. It can take several months for a broadband network to be put into place, he said.

    Jessica Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Regulatory Authority, said a meeting will be held Monday to discuss the state’s strategy in applying for broadband grants.

    The grants will be competitive and each state is guaranteed only one grant, she said.

    Mr. Ramage said broadband can open up opportunities for people in rural areas.

    “There is so much work that is done on the Internet,” he said. “When a student comes home from school and does not have access to the Internet, they are at a disadvantage.”

BROADBAND STIMULUS

$7.2 billion: Total given to expand broadband access $2.5 billion: Given to rural utility services $4 billion: Given to improve broadband infrastructure

$150 million:

Tennessee’s share

Source: Connected Tennessee