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Do you have broadband? What Knoxville is doing to make high-speed internet more accessible

In Knox County, more than 98% of households could get access to broadband, but only 51% of people actually have it.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The digital divide is significant in Knox County, and leaders are working to close it.

Studies by the FCC show 98% of households in Knox County could access broadband; however, only half of those homes actually have it.

"It is known as a health determinant," said Aaron Browning with Knoxville Parks and Recreation. "What it means is that it has a great impact on other aspects of health, which are education, employment, and health care."

Woking in recreation, Browning sees the need for greater internet access in the community.

"A lot of major requests from citizens who live near our rec centers, or visit our rec centers, have come in and asked, 'Hey, do you have Wi-Fi?' or 'Do you have computers that we can use?'" Browning said.

He said the need for reliable internet access was especially dire among students, who may need to connect to the internet to complete their assignments.

Some curriculums have taken a virtual avenue and some students are learning from home. They need quicker internet access to remain up-to-date with their studies.

That's where Knoxville Parks and Recreation comes into play.

"A lot of people see our community centers as a basketball court place where they can go recreate," Browning said. " But, now it's a place where you can go learn something and improve your education."

There is a computer room inside the Cal Johnson Recreation Center, off of Hall of Fame Drive. It consists of four computers, each equipped with high-speed internet, a Microsoft Suite and browsing capabilities.

This was one of the first recreation centers to have public computers in Knoxville.

Currently, three centers provide high-speed internet access for whoever needs it. However, Browning said there's more to come. 

"They're in the process of installing these at more sites, actually, this week. So by next week, we should have public access computers at all of our recreation centers," Browning said.

While this project is in full motion, Browning said that it's just a starting point to close the digital divide.

On Tuesday, the Knoxville City Council voted to give the Parks and Recreation Department the ability to apply for a grant from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to expand broadband access in the community.

Council members also said they would match 30% of the grant offered.

The grant has not yet been issued, as this is still a pilot program with the TVA. 

"As part of the application process for a pilot program, the applicants must be able to supply 30% of the total cost of the proposed project, which is the step we understand the Knoxville City Council made during its recent meeting," said Jim Hopson with TVA.

The request was enacted by Knoxville Parks and Recreation to improve services at community centers to public Wi-Fi networks and digital kiosks for residents to use. Even though the centers are already getting computers, if approved, they hope to use the grant to get high-speed internet for all the public computers.

These improvements would provide a way for residents with limited access to broadband speeds to use their own devices or publicly available devices to improve access to necessary information and services like telehealth, educational resources or city-specific information.

The 'digital divide' has grown increasingly, leaving a disparity between those who have access to high-speed internet and those who do not. The goal of the project is to minimize the divide and make the internet more accessible for all.