CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — U.S. Senate candidate Phil Bredesen said Tuesday he would push to get the Tennessee Valley Authority to help expand broadband internet access to rural areas if elected.
Bredesen is a Democrat and a former Tennessee governor. He is seeking to replace Sen. Bob Corker, a two-term Republican who is not seeking re-election.
Bredesen spoke Tuesday to a Kiwanis Club in Clarksville. He said he is committed to having Congress amend the federal TVA Act to allow the government-owned electricity provider to bring broadband access to underserved rural areas in Tennessee.
Bredesen says the “foundation” has been set by the TVA’s board approval in 2017 of $300 million to expand its network fiber capacity to improve the reliability of its transmission system— and by a law signed by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam last year giving electric cooperatives the authority to provide broadband service.
When the bill was signed, state officials said 34 percent of rural Tennessee residents lack broadband internet access at recognized minimum standards. Bredesen said broadband access is a fundamental utility that spurs economic growth and job creation.
“TVA is perfect to fix this digital divide,” Bredesen said in a statement released by his campaign. “It is in their DNA; they have the systems; they have the finances and have the infrastructure to accomplish this task.”
TVA spokesman Jim Hopson said in an emailed statement that the electricity provider is currently enhancing its fiber network to make sure energy is being delivered reliably in the seven states it serves.
“Our fiber network is designed to support our own power system needs,” Hopson said.
He acknowledged that the TVA would follow the guidance of Congress concerning the TVA Act, but he also said the TVA “is not intending to become a broadband supplier.”
The TVA spokesman said it might have extra, unused capacity to possibly help companies expand broadband services.
The Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act signed by Haslam cleared the way for electricity co-ops to sell internet and video service in rural areas. The measure gives $30 million in grants and an additional $15 million in tax credits to private service providers, such as Comcast and AT&T, to upgrade equipment.
“I want our country to get back to the days when it did bold projects and not just fool around the edges with grants, tax credits, and demonstration projects,” Bredesen said.
The leading GOP candidate to replace Corker is U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn. In a statement Tuesday, Blackburn said “broadband as a utility is a big government solution that will raise taxes.”
The focus should be on implementing the broadband access act signed by Haslam, Blackburn said.
“TVA should stay focused on its core mission, which has served Tennesseans well for decades,” she said.