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Project UNITE Spotlight: Crystal Ivey

“We think of the internet as providing entertainment for us, but it’s so much more than that,” says Crystal Ivey, Director of Broadband at the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development.

We couldn’t agree more. What was once a luxury is now an everyday expectation. We work, learn, attend doctors appointments, and so much more with high-speed internet. But, what about those in rural areas who don’t have the access they need? They’re at a significant disadvantage when compared to their urban counterparts.

Project UNITE is working to change that. By installing fiber in many rural areas of Middle Tennessee, we are working to leverage funding to improve broadband infrastructure and give these residents the connection they need to thrive at home. We talked to Crystal Ivey to discuss the effect that broadband has on Middle Tennessee and how we can help.

What Are the Main Issues Facing Tennessee in Terms of Broadband?

“Two things: access and adoption,” said Ivey.

It’s crucial that we not only provide people with the broadband infrastructure, but that we help them get the most out of it. For those who have had access all along, it can be difficult to imagine why someone in a rural area wouldn’t take advantage of broadband immediately. But actually, there are several factors at play here.

“For many in rural areas, the broadband infrastructure doesn’t run by their house, and so they don’t have a provider they can call. Just as important as access, though? The issue of adoption. Even if you have infrastructure, it’s not guaranteed that you’ll sign up for service due to a variety of factors: affordability, lack of a device, and digital literacy, to name a few.

Making investments in communities in terms of infrastructure is important, but we want to continue supporting those communities to ensure that they’re maximizing the benefits of that infrastructure. We partner with local libraries to conduct digital training, working to increase the impact overall that broadband is having,” Ivey explained.

How Has COVID-19 Changed the Way We Look at Broadband?

COVID-19 has dramatically changed the way we use the internet and how necessary it is for our daily lives. Though access to a high-speed connection has always been a need for rural areas, it’s such a more pressing issue in our current state.

“We get calls from a variety of people who need the internet to work from home or learn from home. We got those calls before COVID-19, but it’s now been elevated to a new level. We think of the internet as providing entertainment for us, but it’s so much more than that. This is about public safety, education, telemedicine—it really runs the gamut,” she said.

How Can Improved Broadband Infrastructure Help Our Communities

From employment to post-secondary education, the improvement of broadband infrastructure stands to elevate rural communities with an infusion of economic growth and development. In a COVID-19 world, our at-home options for work and school are flourishing, but how can our rural residents take advantage if they don’t have the access they need?

“Take Perry County, Tennessee, for example. They’re in the bottom 10% of counties in the country in terms of unemployment. For folks who live in an area like that to be able to work for a company like Amazon, or work remotely for companies in Nashville, the income opportunities would be incredible. Broadband access directly impacts that, as well as post-secondary education opportunities. To be able to increase your income, or even go back to school—this can have a significant economic impact if these communities have access to broadband,” said Ivey.

The Roadblocks on the Way to Improved Rural Broadband Infrastructure

On average, it costs $34,000 per mile to lay fiber. This price tag makes it difficult for some internet service providers to make the commitment—because they may not see a financial result.

“It is very expensive to lay fiber. Companies have a business model, a formula, and they determine the cost, how many people live on the road, and how long it will take for a return on their investment. It’s going to take a long time to recoup this investment in rural areas if there are so few houses on a street. It’s not that they don’t want to deploy, but it can be a financial challenge. It’s a math problem. There aren’t enough people there to make a business case.

That’s where state funding comes into play. Providers like United who have done all their due diligence and know what the community needs are ready to partner with the state. The state wants to work with those companies, because we want to help those constituents,” Ivey added.

United Communications and Project UNITE are Here to Help

“United Communications wants to help. They want to serve the community, and they know they need financial resources to do that. Even though they know that it’s probably not going to be a lucrative place for them. I definitely applaud President William Bradford and the United Communications team. They are one of our best grantees. The whole team is great. It takes money, but it also takes a provider willing to do it. United Communications is definitely that company,” she concluded.

United Communications is happy to have people like Crystal Ivey leading the improvement of broadband in Tennessee. To learn more about Project UNITE’s mission, vision, and progress, please visit Project UNITE.