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Rural Broadband in Tennessee

Does mobile hotspot internet access impact rural lifestyle, workforce, education and businesses? Evidence from distressed communities in rural Tennessee.

Broadband internet is still out of reach for many rural communities in Tennessee who have limited access to broadband internet (25 megabits per second), making them some of the most digitally disconnected communities in Tennessee. The State of Tennessee’s rural broadband initiative is a step in the right direction, but it will likely take years before infrastructure will be in place to provide reliable and affordable internet to rural residents.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that families spend hours in parking lots of fast food restaurants (e.g. McDonalds) to access internet to help children complete homework. This project is a study of lending mobile internet hotspots through a local library to residents and seeking feedback through a short survey. The goal of this project is to assess whether providing access to internet (up to 10 megabits per second) has an impact on digitally underserved communities in Tennessee.

  1. To evaluate the impact of providing internet access to residents in improving educational attainment, workforce, business and wellness of rural communities
  2. To identify cost-effective strategies to bridge the digital divide between urban and rural areas

The mobile hotspots were provided to residents at no cost through public libraries in Hancock, Bledsoe and Wayne Counties for a period of one year. Library patrons in good standing were allowed to check-out the mobile hotspots for 2-3 days on a first-come-first-serve basis. Patrons borrowing hotspots were requested to fill out a short survey on the mobile internet hotspot usage, experience and willingness to pay for broadband internet.

Through conversations with University of Tennessee Extension agents, we confirmed that hurdles in internet access to resident. Internet speed tests were conducted using two devices (Verizon and AT&T) and the device with the best speeds were chosen for each of the three locations. The library personnel were trained in the use of device, troubleshoot and request feedback from patrons through the surveys.

A strong partnership between University of Tennessee and the community was crucial for the success of this project. The University is trusting the library to administer the program in order to reach out to the residents and in turn getting valuable survey data on internet usage and challenges faced by rural communities. This project was mutually beneficial to the University and the communities. Wayne county leveraged the results from this study to secure a grant to extend this program to three more locations in the county and provide digital literacy training to adults and coding skills to school children. Bledsoe county leveraged the results from this study secure an Appalachian Regional Commission’s Downtown Wi-Fi grant with an aim to provide internet access to tourists and visitors while conducting business, buying foods and services at small businesses and spending more time in downtown Pikeville.

Before starting the mobile hotspot program, a pre-survey was conducted to assess the need for internet and willingness to participate in a library mobile internet hotspot lending program. Over 65% of the residents expressed need for internet to support education, learning skills and informational purposes. Out of 500 respondents, 329 residents were willing to participate in a library mobile internet hotspot lending program.

A local community leader matched the funds in Wayne County which enabled the Collinwood Depot Library to support a second mobile hotspot which was much-needed to cater to the overwhelming demand for internet in this rural community.

Through the survey that is requested after using the hotspot, residents were able to provide feedback on the usage of internet, internet subscription plans, satisfaction with the program and willingness to pay for internet.

The results from this project were presented:

  1. As an oral presentation at the Community Development Society’s conference in Detroit in July 2018
  2. A poster was presented at the Community Outreach and Engagement Workshop in Knoxville in October 2018
  3. An Extension publication is underway documenting the project and the impact on the communities

Through the funds received from a University of Tennessee mini-grant, we supported mobile internet hotspots in three rural public libraries – Hancock, Bledsoe and Wayne County. Library patrons in good standing were allowed to check-out the hotspots for 2-3 days free of cost. Overall, the hotspots were checked out 186 times and on an average, the hotspots were checked out by families 16 times per month.  The device helped 109 families with children access internet for school work and helped 395 adults in rural communities to access internet. The families reportedly used internet predominantly for education, improving work skills and research, entertainment and connecting with families and friends. A majority of the households are willing to pay between $10 and $30 per month for reliable internet access. Over 90% of the userswere highly satisfied and 84% likely to recommend this program to family and friends.

There is tremendous interest in rural communities to access internet for educational, business and improving lifestyle. There was a waitlist of more than 30 people to checkout devices and librarians have reported repeat patrons checking out the device. This project can be replicated in other communities that are in need of internet. Opportunities to improve digital literacy skills and improving access exist.

  1. With the funds secured through a Community Engaged Seed Grant, we are expanding the mobile hotspot lending program to 6 public libraries and 11 Elementary schools. Further, this grant was leveragd to apply for funding from USDA Distance Learning and Telemedicine grant.
  2. With the funds secured through a One UT Grant, we are developing digital literacy skills training in 68 counties in Tennessee over a two-year period. This project will use a train-the-trainer approach to impart digital skills to students and 4-H participants with the help of librarians, K-12 teachers and Extension agents.

Contact: Sreedhar Upendram, Assistant Professor