When the COVID-19 pandemic ushered in the era of remote working and Zoom classrooms, many Nashvillians tidied up their home workspaces and shopped around to upgrade their internet connections. But for people in neighboring counties, where internet access was far from guaranteed for many residential properties, just getting online presented a challenge.
In places like Franklin, local governments offered up the parking lots of public buildings like libraries or parks as pseudo internet cafes, allowing residents to connect their devices while remaining in their cars. In other areas, residents relied on the internet connections of businesses like McDonald’s to work, to file school assignments and to stay connected.
“Once you get outside of Nolensville and the city proper, those services are very limited or may be nonexistent,” says Victor Lay, town manager of the growing Williamson County city. “Those opportunities really start to deplete.”
Coronavirus lockdowns highlighted the so-called “digital divide” in Middle Tennessee. But as with so many issues, inequities in internet access existed long before the pandemic and have continued to affect Tennesseans as life has returned to “normal.” The state’s 2022 Broadband Accessibility Map shows that, while the overwhelming majority of properties in Davidson County have access to the federal standard broadband service speed of 100 megabits per second, large swaths of other counties in the greater Nashville area do not — and the lower speeds are not limited strictly to rural, far-flung areas. Williamson County — Davidson’s affluent and rapidly growing neighbor to the south — lacks internet access just outside growing population centers like Nolensville or Spring Hill. This lack of access causes huge issues for people both at home and at the workplace, community leaders say.
“Having broadband is as important as having roads and other infrastructure in the county,” says Williamson County Commissioner Paul Webb.
To bridge the digital divide, the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development in September allocated roughly $446.77 million of its American Rescue Plan funding to the Tennessee Emergency Broadband Fund. According to department spokesperson Jennifer McEachern, the money will provide grant funding to internet service providers in 58 counties to either improve or establish new service to approximately 310,000 Tennesseans by August 2025.
United Communications, which provides service in parts of Bedford, Franklin, Marshall, Rutherford and Williamson counties, received the largest portion of those funds at $53.36 million. The company, like others that received funding, is planning new service lines and purchasing materials in the early stages of its three-year projects to build out new broadband infrastructure. William Bradford, United’s CEO, says part of the company’s challenge is to encourage adoption in areas that may never have felt they needed internet access.
“When you go to an unserved area, you’re going to get a lot of people who sign up on day one,” says Bradford. “They get it. They’ve been begging for it. But there’s another piece of the population that, maybe they gave up. Maybe, because they’ve never had access to internet, they don’t know how they can use it day to day. Part of it is an education process.”
Williamson County has also bolstered its cellular service by building new service towers on public properties and renting them out to companies like Verizon. While the towers are designed to improve broadband as a secondary goal, Williamson County Mayor Rogers Anderson says just having better cell service is a boon for first responders in the county, many of whom resorted to outdated forms of communication like two-way radios before the towers were built.
“When you’re driving down the road, you’re not losing dropped calls — that’s it’s simplest form,” Anderson says. “But from a public safety perspective, we need cell coverage in some areas as much as we need broadband.”
From Nextdoor drama and TikTok bans to broadband access and beyond, here’s a look at Middle Tennessee’s internet footprint