NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee officials are moving forward with a plan to map out just where hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans without access to high-speed Internet live, following the lead of other states that no longer rely on federal maps that overstate coverage in some communities.
The plan involves collecting and validating service data from broadband providers in Tennessee for about a year, with an anticipated completion of summer 2022, said Crystal Ivey, broadband director for the state Department of Economic and Community Development.
The estimated cost for the initial statewide map will be $450,000, though full details of the initiative are still being finalized, Ivey said.
The state’s decision follows the advice of the the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, or TACIR. The panel said in a report earlier this year that Tennessee should join several states in seeking more precision and not waiting around for a rewrite of the federal maps, which are based on data supplied by broadband providers. That rewrite is in the works but with no definitive timeline.
“Accurate, granular broadband availability data is critical to ensuring that federal and state funding will be appropriately directed to unconnected areas in Tennessee, and will be an invaluable tool to assist in our funding decisions,” Ivey said in a statement this week.
Republican Gov. Bill Lee has proposed another $200 million for rural broadband expansion in Tennessee, though lawmakers amended that to $100 million for the upcoming budget while they see how much federal broadband money comes into the state.
Tennessee ranked 34th among states in broadband coverage, according to the Federal Communications Commission’s 2020 broadband deployment report, which relies on December 2018 data. There are still 432,627 Tennesseans living in census blocks where no provider reported the baseline broadband speeds as of December 2019, the TACIR report said.
The Federal Communications Commission maps, which allow providers to claim maximum speeds that may not be offered at every address, can make it difficult to target grants to underserved areas. Congress set aside $98 million in December for the FCC to improve its data, as required in a law passed in March 2020. The FCC announced a task force on the initiative in February, promising coverage information based on individual locations.
Earlier this month, the FCC encouraged people to download its speed test app to see how fast their Internet connection is and privately report their coverage levels to the agency.
The TACIR report said Tennessee should follow the map-making lead of Georgia, which found that at least 255,000 homes and businesses “are at best only partially served,” even though their census blocks are listed as fully served by the FCC.
Georgia updates its map annually based on address-level data reported to the state under agreements with broadband providers, the report noted. Providers were assured the information they share with the state is “protected and cannot be publicly shared in ways that would reveal business-sensitive information.” Local governments can help shape the maps by providing locations of broadband gaps.