Assessing Strategies to Bridge Digital Divide between Urban and Rural Areas

UT Extension working with county libraries to provide internet connections

University of Tennessee Extension has received a grant to bring mobile hot spots to the most distressed and digitally disconnected communities in Tennessee. Collaborators pictured above are, from left, Sreedhar Upendram, UT Extension; Lois Rosenbalm, director of Hancock County Public Library; Pam Lane, assistant director of Hancock County Public Library; Gina Hunter, network services consultant, state IT; and Jacob Boone, UT Extension director in Hancock County.​ Photo courtesy Hancock County Public Library. Download image​.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Broadband internet access has become commonplace in many areas of Tennessee; however, residents of some rural counties still lack access, possibly disadvantaging students, businesses and lifestyles of these residents. University of Tennessee Extension has received a grant to target a solution for these disconnected counties.

While the Tennessee Department of Economic Development has launched a broadband initiative, the required infrastructure will likely take years before reliable and affordable internet is available to all rural residents. In response to the immediate needs of the most digitally disconnected communities, UT Extension has developed a solution to bridge this digital gap.

In a collaborative effort between UT Extension and the public libraries of Bledsoe, Hancock and Wayne counties, mobile hot spots are available to residents at no cost for a one-year period. Residents in good standing may check out a mobile hot spot for two to three days, on a first-come-first-served basis, and will be asked to complete a short survey regarding hot spot usage, experience, and willingness to pay for broadband internet. County Extension personnel will train library staff in the use of the mobile hot spots. This collaborative program will be the first of its kind in these counties.

Recent statistics indicate that only 22 percent of the population in Hancock County and 25 percent of the population in Bledsoe County have access to broadband internet, making these counties the most digitally disconnected communities in Tennessee. These counties are also the most distressed in the state. There are anecdotal stories of families spending hours in parking lots of fast-food restaurants to access the internet so that children can complete their homework.

“The program has been hugely popular in Collinwood, with 17 families checking out the hot spot within the first month,” says Sreedhar Upendram, assistant professor and community development specialist with the UT Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics. “In order to meet the high demand, a local community member donated funds to support a second hot spot in the community. We are already making an impact. This is what community development is all about.”

The mobile hot spot program is currently available at Collinwood Depot Library in Wayne County, Hancock County Public Library and Bledsoe County Public Library.

Researchers will also evaluate whether providing reliable internet access improves lifestyle, educational attainment, wellness and business environment in rural areas. The survey data collected will be used to evaluate the costs, savings generated, as well as improved efficiency in a cost-benefit analysis framework. The collected data on willingness to pay for broadband internet can be instrumental when negotiating affordable rates with internet service providers in these communities. The grant is partially funded by UT’s Office of Community Engagement and Outreach, with all funds supporting the mobile hot spots with unlimited data in Bledsoe, Hancock and Wayne county libraries.

In addition to training library staff, the following UT Extension agents were also instrumental in developing collaborative relationships with the local libraries: James Harlan (Wayne County); Jacob Boone (Hancock County); and J.C. Rains (Bledsoe County).

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Sreedhar Upendram, Assistant Professor, 865-974-7410,​