Boost internet access in rural communities, boost the economic development

For a year now, we have highlighted how the pandemic is exposing the need for greater broadband access in rural America. Here is how increasing internet speed in rural Tennessee is good for economic development.

Historic downtown Pikeville, where the pace of life might be laid back, but the internet here flows super-fast.

Bledsoe is one of several Tennessee counties where UT’s Institute of Agriculture is working to boost broadband access, improve internet for businesses, tourism, festivals, and events, including the upcoming farmers’ market.

“We’re really happy with the speeds that we’re getting,” UT Extension’s J.C. Rains states. “There’s a large number of folks that get online during those events, and it’s nice to have this in place that can handle that type of traffic.”

Rains teams with Sreedhar Upendram from Agricultural Economics and Natural Resources. They placed twenty hotspots around a five-block downtown area, wireless access points that provide free, strong internet-- meeting a need for the community.

“What we noticed, by far, was affordability of internet and then access to internet, so mainly signal strength,” Upendram states.

When you boost broadband in a rural area, it helps students in virtual learning, connects businesses with customers anywhere around the world, and could create economic opportunities in the form of jobs.

According to Upendram, “Our main goal is education, trying to get kids to get through virtual school and also to improve their educational attainment. The secondary objective is mainly to improve work skills, so people can skill up and get gainful employment and move upward and onward.”

What good is fast internet if you do not know how to use it?

We are not just watching cat videos here. This effort also includes digital literacy training in more than two-thirds of Tennessee’s counties-- how to use the internet to work from home, or skills like how to apply for a job or shopping online.

This project also includes using schools and public libraries in eight rural counties as mobile hotspots.

The Institute of Agriculture is working here with the UT Library System to create these partnerships.

Isabella Baxter with the UT Library System explains, “Libraries, they’ve been serving their communities for a long time. They’re trusted partners in their communities, and so they’re natural partners because they have that trust. They are a hub in the community, and they have professionals who understand the importance of information navigating through the information world.”

There will likely be a day when the internet is the same everywhere-- powerful and just there for everyone. Meantime, if we cut the digital divide between urban and rural areas, it could mean an improved economic future for small towns.


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High-speed broadband is essential for rural America to survive in this inter-connected world