One of Gov. Bill Haslam's top initiatives for the year cleared the Senate on Monday, setting the stage for the House to take action to expand broadband access to rural areas of the state.
The grant program would provide $45 million over three years for incentives to expand broadband to areas that Haslam says are in dire need of access. The topic of rural broadband broadly has been a common topic in both chambers for a few years, and Haslam's measure would formally kick in $15 million each over the next three years.
"Better access, not bigger government," said Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville.
Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, said the state ranks 29th in the country in broadband access. About 34 percent of the state — about 725,000 people — does not have access to broadband. Opponents to the measure argued during committee hearings that wireless internet services, like those through a cellular or satellite provider, already cover many of those people and would create unfair competition for some of those providers.
Paul Vaughn, president of Tennessee Wireless, said during committee hearings there were more than two dozen providers of wireless internet service, which is different from broadband but is accessible in rural areas, offering service across the state.
The effort also has been important for Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, who has sponsored various bills over the last several years to do essentially the same thing. She called the measure "essential" for rural communities and a measure that would remove provisions in a 1999 piece of legislation that prohibited rural cooperatives from retailing fiber-optic cable that is required by the state.
The measure has moved fairly quickly through committees, the only resistance coming from provisions over whether cooperatives could provide service outside their normal service area. Current providers of broadband service in rural areas testified in committee hearings that the bill was unnecessary and would create unfair competition for providers that had already offered the service for several years.
The Senate did amend the bill. The amended version allows for video service to be sold as part of the broadband service, which was not part of Haslam's original proposal. The Senate also amended the minimum speed that could be provided from 25 mbps to 10 mbps. But Bell said preference for grant applications would be given to cooperatives that could provide higher speeds.
Also Monday, the Senate approved several other measures from the Haslam administration that changed the state tax code as it relates to franchise and excise taxes.
The measures were on the Senate's consent calendar, which includes items that aren't generally controversial and can be passed without debate.
Reach Jake Lowary at 615-881-7039 and on Twitter @JakeLowary.