Republican and Democratic gubernatorial nominees agree without making broadband internet widely available in Tennessee, attracting business, including entrepreneurs and tech companies, will continue to leave the state at a significant disadvantage.
Speaking to an audience of business leaders and entrepreneurs at 36|86 Entrepreneurship Festival in Nashville, Williamson County businessman Bill Lee, a Republican, and former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, a Democrat, stressed the need to expand internet availability.
"What we’ve done has been very incremental and very slow about addressing rural broadband," Dean said during a one-on-one chat with a moderator.
"We’re not in a position to really help rural Tennessee as much as we need to without universal broadband," he said.
Dean said the lack of broadband throughout the state has put limits on education, health care and business development.
"That’s like tying both arms behind their backs,” he said, referring to students growing up without access to the internet in their homes.
Although Dean did not provide specifics on how he would expand access to broadband, he mentioned that it could be done through public-private partnerships.
"I used to say as mayor that you've got to have enough confidence in yourself as a city to invest in yourself. We as a state have got to have enough confidence in ourselves as a state and the people of our state to invest in them and that's what rural broadband is," he said.
Lee, who lives on a farm and doesn't have broadband in his home, said it is a key element while attracting businesses to Tennessee.
“Tech talent can be developed even in rural communities if they have access to technology through broadband," he said.
Lee, who appeared after Dean exited the stage, said a conversation with a couple who run a business out of their home and moved from the San Francisco bay area to Cookeville, reminded him of the need for making broadband widely available.
"That will allow people to plant their businesses and develop their businesses and it will develop tech talent, whether it’s a kid that wants to be involved in coding, it will develop tech talent all over our state," he said.
Like Dean, Lee did not offer ideas on how he would increase broadband coverage in Tennessee.
Last year, Gov. Bill Haslam's administration began offering $45 million in grants and tax credits to service providers for providing access to broadband in underserved areas.
Beyond discussing broadband, Lee and Dean both touted the need to create an environment in Tennessee that will attract entrepreneurs and businesses development similar to what has been done with the health care community.
"You’ve got to create this atmosphere where businesses want to be here," Dean said.
Noting that the agricultural community has yet to be transformed by technology, Lee said he would like to see Tennessee lead the way.
"We have an opportunity...to be the Silicon Valley of ag," he said.
Reach Joel Ebert at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-772-1681 and on Twitter @joelebert29.