The Tennessee Economic and Community Development Office (TNECD) will begin accepting applications for $60 million in Capital Projects Fund (CPF) dollars for rural broadband deployments next month. But not every county will be eligible for funding.

Telecompetitor talked recently with Tennessee State Broadband Director Taylre M. Beaty about the rationale behind this, about the state’s plans for the BEAD program and other rural broadband issues.

“We wanted to look at counties that historically had very few applications for grant programs,” Beaty said regarding the CPF plans. “It was an effort to set up a targeted program where we really incentivized providers to come to the table in those areas.”

TNECD selected three counties for the program, which has a $60 million budget. The counties are Polk, Hardin and Wayne. All three had few if any, applications in previous funding programs. Beaty noted that some other states have used this targeted approach successfully in the past.

The upcoming $42.5 billion BEAD rural broadband funding program has set a goal of making service available nationwide. But reaching every unserved location won’t be possible unless providers step up to the challenge.

Potentially, programs like the one that the TNECD has created could help ensure that every location receives a bid.

“We wanted to see if this was something we could use with more counties down the road,” explained Beaty.

Tennessee Broadband Opportunities

Tennessee has had a state broadband office since 2017. Beaty joined as director in 2021 and the office is now fully staffed with seven employees.

The state previously awarded broadband deployment funding through several programs, which were funded through $60 million in CARES Act funding that the state received, $60 million in state funding and $50 million that came through the ARPA State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund.

The state’s BEAD allocation is $813 million and the TNECD is currently in the process of completing its five-year plan, which must be submitted to NTIA later this month.

The office also has started work on its initial proposal for the BEAD program, which must be filed with NTIA by late December. The state expects to make the proposal available for public comment in the fall.

The state did its own broadband map, which used the FCC broadband map as a starting point. A third-party consulting firm helps the state with the challenge and validation process.

Beaty anticipates that the state’s BEAD rules will allow any provider that is authorized to provide retail broadband services in the state to apply for funding.

Among the BEAD tasks still ahead for TNECD is determining the high-cost threshold which, in turn, will determine areas where providers can apply to deploy something other than fiber broadband.

“That’s something we’re still working on,” Beaty said.

And broadband deployment funding is just one of the office’s responsibilities.

Beaty noted that affordability is an important issue for the state and that programs designed to enable everyone to afford broadband will be critical to the nation’s broadband goals and also will impact the success of deployment programs.

She also noted that “There are a lot of funding opportunities coming up, not just [deployment] programs, but also digital opportunity and connected community programs.”

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