In 2010, Scott County, Tennessee languished at a twenty-one percent unemployment rate, not unusual for rural areas. By early 2015, that rate had halved. Through fiber optic power, Highland Telephone Cooperative’s vision, and funding from USDA Rural Development, these rural counties have become robust community models of technological enfranchisement.
Five years ago in the communities dotting the Upper Cumberland Plateau, lack of broadband access was a barrier to services that residents and businesses in urban areas take for granted. Geographical challenges such as the region’s remote and rocky terrain, combined with the lack of subscribers to provide business income, are common reasons rural areas do not enjoy affordable and reliable high-speed internet service.
When the Highland Telephone Cooperative from Sunbright, Tennessee received a 2010 Recovery Act broadband program award of $66.5 million, the 60-year old company embarked on a network build-out that in earlier decades would have taken half a century to complete. Yet, months before the 2015 deadline, Highland Telephone Cooperative had provided 100 percent of its service area with over 2,700 miles of fiber and rates as fast as 50 mbps.
Now, 21,000 households benefit from high-speed internet access. Residents can earn degrees online through Roane State Community College. Scott County clinics, among the 770 anchor institutions and businesses with state-of-the-art broadband, can schedule online appointments and digitize health records. A business owner told us that broadband access is “like going from a gravel road to the Interstate” as his company gains traction abroad. Broadband is making the historic restoration process more efficient by sourcing new funding and cheaper replacement parts.
Over 50 percent of those who live in rural areas do not have access to high-speed internet. At USDA, we're taking the next steps so that someday all rural communities can benefit from broadband service like that in Scott County.