Former Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen — and his Republican rival for the U.S. Senate, Congressman Marsha Blackburn — have both been talking up plans to expand broadband access in rural places.
But they're pitching two very different solutions.
Bredesen's idea is proposing legislation that would allow the Tennessee Valley Authority to get rural residents hooked up. Today, the federal agency is primarily known as a power company, but it initially had a societal mission as well: Its dams were meant to control floodwaters and generate electric power for struggling communities across the Southeast.
Bredesen says it could provide internet infrastructure as well.
"TVA seemed, to me, to be the perfect vehicle to do that. It's in its DNA. It started out as a rural development agency in the 1930s."
Lack of broadband access is a widespread problem in Tennessee. Some residents live in places where dial-up internet, or their cell phones, are the only options for getting online.
In Marion County, where Bredesen recently pitched his idea in a roundtable discussion, 15 percent of the population lacks broadband. In nearby Sequatchie County, almost half the residents lack it.
Mark Griffith, Marion County’s superintendent of schools, sees firsthand how lack of reliable, high-speed internet access affects some of his students. They have to go to places like McDonald's, or put in extra classroom time, so they can get online and do homework.
"They get to school a lot earlier than they should, to be quite honest with you, you know," he said. "and just … some of them struggle."
Bredesen's opponent in the race for Senate, U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, has also talked about rural broadband expansion being a priority. She's also chairwoman of the House subcommittee on communications and technology.
"Broadband expansion is something that is a top of mind issue in my district," she said in an interview last year with the Hudson Institute. "I have begun to say broadband is the principal infrastructure issue for the 21st century."
She's not in favor of the TVA idea, however. In a statement, she opposed the idea of broadband being treated as a utility. She called it an anticompetitive solution that will create a government monopoly and raise taxes.
She says she's focused on free-market solutions, with the government helping private companies. In a recent editorial in the Hartsville Vidette, she touted new federal legislation providing more bandwidth to wireless providers, and lowering access fees for private broadband deployment.
Federal grant and loan programs also exist to help private companies provide rural broadband service.