For those still patiently waiting for broadband service in Middle Tennessee, there’s no better champion than Jeff Davidson.
After nearly four decades of public service, including thirty years and three combat tours in the U.S. Army and achieving a rank of Colonel, Jeff now serves his community at United Communications. In his role as Broadband Ambassador, Jeff helps rural communities pursue policies and secure valuable grants that make high-speed internet access possible.
We recently visited with Jeff to discuss his journey from the battlefield to broadband advocacy, starting with his former role as deputy mayor of Rutherford County.
“For six years in office, I was known as the internet guy,” said Jeff, who often found himself fielding constituent calls about the lack of broadband options. Over time, those conversations changed his perspective about the digital divide in rural communities.
“When we first moved to a rural community, I was like others who assumed that if you had electricity, you had internet access,” he explained. “We all thought it was as ubiquitous as any other utility, but that just wasn’t true.”
Before broadband became available at his home, Jeff had no choice but to pay hundreds of dollars for devices and data plans to maintain an unreliable, threadbare connection. Jeff’s daughter, Erin, started a small floral business from their home during the pandemic and often waited for several days to download a single file on her computer.
“I remember having to drive into town to find an open Wi-Fi signal so she could keep working,” he said. “What took hours or days to download at home took just a few seconds with a proper connection.”
It’s an all-too-familiar experience for many Tennesseans, especially in rural areas. According to FCC data, Tennessee ranks 34th among all other states in broadband coverage. Roughly one in five Tennesseans live in so-called “digital deserts,” where broadband is unavailable at any price.
From his own experience, Jeff knows that anyone without fast, reliable internet service is at risk of being left behind in an increasingly digital society.
“Whether you’re dealing with public services, banking, healthcare, or education, the internet is an essential resource,” he said. “If you’re looking for a job, you need to be able to find it online and apply for it online. If you want to keep track of your kid’s progress in school, you have to go online. That’s the reality.”
As deputy mayor, Jeff quickly prioritized broadband expansion to serve more homes and businesses in the county. In 2018, he and others successfully convinced state lawmakers to lift burdensome regulations preventing internet expansion in rural communities.
Today, Jeff is an integral part of Project UNITE and its mission to provide high-speed internet to every under-connected home or business in Middle Tennessee. So far, Project UNITE has provided broadband access to approximately 13,000 previously unserved homes that families need for essential tasks like distance learning, remote working, and telehealth appointments.
United is a subsidiary and partner of Middle Tennessee Electric, and this past December, United announced a new collaborative effort with Duck River Electric. Both relationships create a faster and more effective way to expand broadband to other communities without high-speed internet or a choice of providers.
But there’s more to do.
Jeff, along with United’s leadership, are engaging county leaders to commit their support and investment, along with United’s own investment, in applying for a share of $500 million in broadband expansion grants from the state.
“The state is committing millions to invest in our broadband infrastructure, so now is the time for rural communities to take action,” said Jeff. “When it comes to fast, reliable internet service, we can’t afford to leave anyone behind.”
Learn more about Project UNITE’s mission to deliver high-speed internet throughout the Middle Tennessee region.