Tennessee Drafts a Digital Opportunity Plan

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, September 22, 2023

Weekly Digest

Tennessee Drafts a Digital Opportunity Plan

 You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of Sept 18-22, 2023

Grace Tepper

All 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico are currently working on digital equity plans. As they release draft plans seeking public feedback, the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is sharing summaries focused on how states define their digital divides and their vision for reaching digital equity.

Affordability, reliability, dependability, and digital literacy are the tenets of Tennessee's draft Digital Opportunity Plan. The Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development (TNDECD) released the draft plan in early September, with a period of one month for public commenters to submit their feedback before October 9. Despite statewide investments into infrastructure and adoption programs, many Tennesseans still lack access to high-speed internet, devices, and the digital skills necessary to make full use of the opportunities presented by the digital economy. Through the draft Digital Opportunity Plan, TNECD is addressing these challenges by creating a comprehensive strategy for all Tennesseans to have the resources needed to thrive in the 21st century.

Tennessee's Vision of Digital Equity

Tennessee’s vision for digital opportunity is ensuring that all Tennesseans have access to affordable and reliable internet service, dependable technology, and the digital literacy skills necessary to empower individuals to access all digital opportunities fully.

In a digitally equitable Tennessee:

  • Students and teachers will not struggle to access assignments outside the classroom.
  • Doctors and other medical professionals will be able to easily communicate with patients.
  • Senior citizens and other vulnerable populations will know how to use digital devices safely and stay connected with friends and loved ones.
  • The state will become even more competitive for business opportunities once its entire workforce has access to high-speed internet.
  • The state can continue honoring its commitment to offering high-quality, efficient services.
  • All Tennessee communities, regardless of location, will be strengthened when all Tennesseans have access to high-speed internet and have the resources to adopt.

Tennessee defines digital opportunity as the idea that all individuals and communities have the resources to access the internet, including existing broadband infrastructure in their communities, affordable internet service, access to technology, and digital literacy tools.

To achieve Digital Opportunity, all Tennesseans must have access to available and affordable broadband infrastructure regardless of their geographic location, educational attainment, or income level. TNECD advocates for a long-term investment in broadband infrastructure maintenance and digital skills training across the state. In a digitally equitable Tennessee, an extensive network exists between internet service providers, digital inclusion non-profits, the State Broadband Office, and the public that collectively works towards closing the digital divide. Innovative and impactful digital opportunity work has been present in the state for years but often with limited resources. The State Broadband Office hopes to support existing digital opportunity work and develop new initiatives to guarantee that every Tennessean who wants to access the internet can do so easily.

The vision for the state’s Digital Opportunity Plan is to develop strategies to establish sustainable digital opportunity programming that empowers Tennesseans to expand their capacity for employment; promote information sharing across partners, organizations, and agencies tied to digital opportunity; and, most importantly, achieve Digital Opportunity in Tennessee through tangible programs and resources.

The broad goals that accompany Tennessee's vision are:

  • Build a statewide network for Digital Opportunity of state agencies, nonprofits, local governments, and internet service providers.
  • Increase job opportunities in Tennessee.
  • Improve health outcomes by increasing access to healthcare providers via telehealth.
  • Increase internet safety among vulnerable populations.

Barriers to Digital Equity

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that over 80 percent of Tennesseans belong to a covered population or a group of people that may be disproportionately impacted by the digital divide. Both urban and rural communities face significant barriers in closing the digital divide. Accessibility gaps and the lack of broadband infrastructure, often influenced by rugged terrains and low population densities, prevent many rural Tennesseans from accessing high-speed internet service. Tennesseans in urban communities face similar challenges due to aging infrastructure, the need for upgraded future-proof technology, and historical patterns of underinvestment. For both urban and rural Tennesseans, the most significant barrier to accessing the internet and other digital resources is the cost of reliable, high-speed internet.

Affordability emerged as the top barrier across all covered populations and communities in Tennessee. Many state residents forgo an internet subscription to pay for basic needs like food and water. For others who may have internet access, the cost of high-speed internet services that can support online schooling and remote work remains out of their purchasing power or poses a financial burden.

Digital Skills surfaced as another key barrier for Tennesseans. Many communities across the state report a need for both foundational skills and advanced workforce-related skills. Aging individuals report lacking basic skills as a barrier at higher rates than other covered populations. The need for advanced skills was reported statewide, particularly in conversations focused on serving covered populations.

Technical Support for devices and internet equipment was communicated by Tennesseans to be a significant barrier. Tennesseans also reported limited resources around troubleshooting, technical repairs, and maintenance services.

Access to Quality Devices like laptops and tablets prevents many communities from accessing opportunities online. Most Tennesseans have a smartphone, but many lack access to a device that enables remote working, online education, and other useful digital applications.

Online Safety and Privacy is a major concern for many in the state. Tennesseans expressed concerns for the safety of both children and aging individuals utilizing the internet. Ensuring that personal information remains secure surfaced as a key barrier preventing broader internet use for some in our state. In conversations with Tennesseans, TNECD noticed a correlation between a lack of digital skills and concerns about online safety.

Covered Populations

Affordability, device access, and digital literacy are central needs for individuals living in covered households. At nearly every Tennessee listening session, attendees reported challenges in paying for necessities and being unable to afford internet subscriptions. Most Tennessee individuals, including those in covered households, have smartphones. However, there is a need for affordable laptops, desktops, and tablets in covered households where quality devices are not affordable. Due to limited access to internet subscriptions and higher-capacity devices (laptops and desktops), low-income households have fewer opportunities to gain and apply digital skills in their everyday lives. 

Aging individuals in Tennessee reported broadband affordability and availability as barriers to Internet access. Aging individuals in urban and rural areas often face high-cost internet options with low-speed subscriptions. For many rural communities, there are no reliable broadband options available, and those that are available entail high costs to consumers. Many aging individuals live on a fixed income and need help paying for quality service, exacerbating the internet affordability issue. Aging Tennesseans also reported concerns with online safety and privacy. Finally, some aging individuals experience gaps in lack basic digital skills and, as a result, avoid using digital resources. 

As of June 2023, the Tennessee Department of Corrections reported that there were 19,007 incarcerated individuals in state prisons. This number does not include the number of Tennesseans in federal prisons and local/county jails. There are thousands more "justice-involved individuals" that are on parole or probation. Digital skills training is a significant need for this covered population. Non-profit organizations serving incarcerated/formerly incarcerated individuals also cited digital skills training as a principal need. Incarcerated individuals often lack the opportunity to develop digital skills due to limited educational programming covering digital skills inside carceral facilities. If educational programs are available, the devices used are usually not the most current technology available.

Veterans face affordability challenges accessing internet services, especially those living on fixed incomes. Disabled veterans may face mobility issues and need assistive devices. In Tennessee's Digital Opportunity Survey, several veterans identified as aging individuals, meaning that there is also a need for digital skills training to address this covered population’s needs. A veterans-focused listening session revealed that veterans often depend on telehealth services and need access to reliable infrastructure and devices to connect with healthcare providers.

Affordability is the highest need for individuals with disabilities as many live on a fixed income and require high-speed internet services, specific devices, or software to use the Internet entirely. For Tennesseans with visual or audio impairments, websites, and digital software can be extremely challenging to navigate or completely inaccessible. Assistive devices range in application and usage but are generally very expensive and can pose a financial challenge for individuals and families. Some individuals with disabilities have mobility challenges and rely on the Internet more heavily than others to access social services or connect with loved ones. Therefore, these individuals must have quality Internet access. Members of this covered population expressed a need for a virtual “one-stop-shop” where they can access several digital resources from their homes. One potential and highly effective way to address this concern is to incorporate accessible digital resources and information into the existing social services they rely on.

Existing digital opportunity resources are often inaccessible for individuals with language barriers because they tend to be available only in English. Internet subscriptions can pose financial burdens for English Language Learners who are also in covered households. There is an acute need for digital skills training to be available in spoken languages other than English in Tennessee. Non-profit organizations serving immigrant communities reported that staff often offer informal technical support and digital skills trainings because existing resources or programs are not tailored to English Language Learners or individuals with low literacy levels. Due to language barriers and a need for translation services, there can be less trust among those with language barriers and state agencies providing social services.

Individuals with low literacy levels are another population likely underrepresented in our data since the Digital Opportunity Survey requires a certain level of literacy. TNECD recognizes that Tennesseans with low literacy levels face accessibility barriers when accessing the Internet. Information presented online may be challenging for individuals with low literacy levels to comprehend. A central theme in Tennessee's listening sessions was the importance of using accessible language when explaining Digital Opportunity initiatives.

Individuals who are members of a racial or ethnic minority group face affordability and device access struggles like other covered populations. For racial/ethnic minorities residing in rural areas across Tennessee, broadband infrastructure access is a genuine concern due to possible geographical restrictions. The FCC's map shows that urban parts of the state are largely served but reports from community members suggest gaps in broadband infrastructure in metropolitan areas. Recent research also indicates a correlation between broadband access and historically redlined urban neighborhoods, where individuals residing in traditionally redlined areas report lower broadband access rates. In its full report, TNDECD breaks down this section further by select racial/ethnic minority groups, and acknowledges that individuals can be members of multiple minority groups.

Infrastructure is a crucial barrier for rural households, coupled with access and affordability. Access to broadband services is a fundamental limitation for many rural Tennesseans because of a general lack of availability of broadband infrastructure. If services are available, they can be costly and insufficient for taking advantage of digital resources such as telehealth, working from home, etc. Geography and mobility also present challenges for rural Tennesseans, especially in remote areas of East Tennessee. Accessing location-based services presents challenges for residents of mountain communities as they must travel greater distances for services than most in the state. The need for broadband infrastructure also impacts device access and digital skills in rural communities. Additionally, there is an essential need to build more trust and transparency between rural residents, federal and state government agencies, and internet service providers.

Implementation Strategy and Key Activities

The Digital Opportunity Plan outlines proposed strategies and activities to address the needs of Tennesseans under six overarching goals:

  1. Increase digital adoption rates in Tennessee (Digital adoption is defined here as the act of subscribing to internet service)
  2. Improve online accessibility and inclusivity of state agencies’ resources
  3. Expand workforce development opportunities through access to digital skills trainings
  4. Increase number of resources that promote Internet safety and privacy practices
  5. Expand Digital Opportunity Infrastructure and Awareness Statewide (i.e. telehealth, digital skills, online safety, technical certifications, etc.)
  6. Expand access to affordable devices for personal and common use

1) Broadband Availability and Affordability


  • Support Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) enrollment efforts statewide
    • Require all Digital Opportunity grant recipients to support ACP enrollment
    • Provide grant funding to libraries, schools, nonprofit organizations, and other community anchor institutions for digital navigation and enrollment efforts
    • Leverage statewide contacts to increase ACP awareness
    • Convene Federal Communications Commission ACP grantees in Tennessee to stay up to date on initiatives and best practices
  • Increase take-rates in state-funded broadband infrastructure projects
    • Require providers associated with state-funded broadband infrastructure projects to undertake outreach efforts in the areas they plan to serve
  • Promote public-private partnerships that expand internet access
    • Provide grant funding for public housing authorities to partner with ISPs to establish greater internet connectivity and affordability.
    • Fund a competitive grant for partnerships between ISPs and philanthropic organizations, units of local government, and other CAIs to promote internet access
    • Provide grant opportunities for CAIs to provide free public Wi-Fi access points in challenged communities
    • Produce a public-facing map of existing public Wi-Fi access points and other digital opportunity assets on the state broadband office website

Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)

  • ACP enrollment
    • Baseline: 388,353 households enrolled in ACP (Roughly 1,184,000 households eligible for ACP)
    • Short Term Goal: See an increase in ACP enrollment by 15 percent among eligible households
    • Long Term Goal: See an increase in ACP enrollment by 35 percent among eligible households
  • Percentage of Tennessee households with internet subscriptions (at least 100/20 Mbps)
    • Baseline: 227,305 estimated residential locations lacking access to 100 Mbps Download x 20 Mbps Upload Speeds (100/20 Mbps)
    • Short Term Goal: 25 percent decrease in those lacking access to 100/20 Mbps
    • Long Term Goal: 50 percent decrease in those lacking access to 100/20 Mbps
  • Number of grants provided to support public-private partnerships surrounding low or reduced-cost internet service subscriptions.
    • Baseline: 0 grants currently provided
    • Short Term Goal: 5 grants provided for low or reduced-cost internet service subscriptions.
    • Long Term Goal: 10 grants provided for low or reduced-cost internet service subscriptions.

2) Online Accessibility and Inclusivity


  • Promote online inclusivity by providing grant opportunities to organizations serving covered populations
    • Design competitive grant opportunities for basic digital skills trainings for covered populations in Tennessee
    • Continue convening the Digital Opportunity Taskforce with an added focus on digital inclusion efforts
    • Provision funds to existing state programs that provide assistive tech to Tennesseans
  • Ensure state-produced resources are accessible across different communities in need of inclusion
    • Ensure Digital Opportunity resources are available in major spoken languages in Tennessee and accessible to Tennesseans with audio and visual impairments as they are deployed


  • Number of digital opportunity grants awarded to organizations/agencies serving covered populations in TN.
    • Baseline: 0 Current Grants
    • Short Term: Award 5 Grants
    • Long Term: Award 10 Grants
  • Number of state website pages with accessibility features for visual/audio impairments, individuals with language barriers, etc.
    • Baseline: Will be determined during Implementation
    • Short Term Goal: Update the Department of Economic and Community Development’s website to be accessible to individuals with language barriers and/or individuals with visual/audio impairments
    • Long Term Goal: Identify accessibility issues and provide recommendations
      to 10 state departments’ websites

3) Digital Literacy and Workforce Development


  • Develop a curriculum for digital skills readiness encompassing online safety and cybersecurity
    • Leverage the expertise of the Digital Opportunity Taskforce members to help create a curriculum for basic digital skills
  • Expand availability of digital skills trainings among community anchor institutions statewide
    • Continue existing digital adoption programs supporting basic and advanced digital skills
    • Increase grant funding available for the state Broadband Ready Communities program to increase availability of digital skills training and other digital inclusion activities statewide
    • Expand the existing Training Opportunities for the Public (TOP) grant program to support digital skills training in public libraries
    • Provision funds for the TN Department of Education to administer a grant for K-12 schools to acquire equipment for digital education and broadband connections
  • Increase the availability of digital skills and credentialling programs statewide among institutions serving primarily covered populations
    • Continue the Digital Skills, Education and Workforce (DSEW) competitive grant opportunity to support credentialing programs regarding digital skills for the workforce
    • Work with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to expand on their efforts surrounding digital skills credentialing and advanced IT certifications
    • Work with the Tennessee College of Applied Technology (TCAT) network to expand access to advanced digital skills certifications across their campus locations


  • Number of locations providing digital skills trainings through TNECD Broadband Grants
    • Baseline: 50 TOP grants awarded in Fiscal Year 2023
    • Short Term Goal: Increase the total number of training locations in all grand
      divisions of TN
    • Long Term Goal: Digital Skills trainings are available in all TN counties

4) Online Privacy and Cybersecurity


  • Identify/develop partnerships with existing state initiatives around internet safety
    • Require all future, state-funded digital skills grant programs (covering basic skills) contain an online safety component
    • Produce an online safety and cybersecurity framework that is available in multiple languages and accessible to local agencies/organizations


  • Percentage of TN reporting confidence in utilizing digital resources safely
    • Baseline: Not established yet
    • Short Term: 30 percent of Tennesseans in courses with an online safety component feel confident utilizing digital resources safely
    • Long Term: 80 percent of Tennesseans in courses with an online safety component feel confident utilizing digital resources safely

5) Digital Opportunity Ecosystem


  • Expand capacities for telehealth services
    • Through programs like Connected Community Facilities, provide grant funding to local entities to expand their capacities for telehealth service, such as increasing opportunities for medical staff to improve upon digital skills
  • Continue statewide outreach efforts supporting Digital Opportunity
    • Continue hosting the Digital Opportunity Summit to convene statewide partners and provide updates on the state of Digital Opportunity in Tennessee
    • Continue regional outreach efforts surrounding upcoming grants and best practices.
  • Track the impact of digital opportunity efforts in Tennessee and provide annual reports to the public
    • Require and standardize data gathering for grantees around digital opportunity metrics
    • Provide annual reports on the impact of digital opportunity programs and grants including KPIs, program outcomes, etc.


  • Number of people engaged by Digital Opportunity outreach efforts.
    • Baseline: About 1,500 people engaged by planning efforts (Listening Sessions, Digital Opportunity Survey)
    • Short Term Goal: 25,000 Tennesseans engaged during the outreach efforts and future digital opportunity initiatives
    • Long Term Goal: 100,000 Tennesseans engaged during outreach efforts and future digital opportunity initiatives

6) Device Availability and Affordability


  • Provide pathways for purchasing subsidized devices
    • Require all Digital Opportunity grants providing digital skills trainings for covered populations to contain a pathway to purchasing a subsidized device
  • Promote device refurbishment and redistribution
    • Establish a matching platform for entities to donate their used devices to community-focused organizations or individuals in need
    • Develop best practices around acquiring and maintaining refurbished devices, for entities like school districts


  • Number of large screen devices (laptops, tablets, assistive devices) distributed through the matching platform
    • Baseline: 0
    • Short Term Goal: 500 donated and/or refurbished devices received by communities through the matching platform
    • Long Term Goal: 1,000 donated and/or refurbished devices received by communities through the matching platform

Tennessee Wants to Hear From You

The public comment period for Tennessee's draft Digital Opportunity Plan will close on October 9, 2023. Tennesseans are invited to submit their feedback and comments both in person at public listening sessions or using the state's online form.

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

Upcoming Events

Sept 22-23––Telecommunications Policy Research Conference 2023

Sept 27––Building Connections Across the Divide (Axios)

Sept 27––Mapping Broadband and Maternal Health Webinar (FCC)

Sept 27-28––Oregon Infrastructure Summit (Business Oregon)

Sept 28––IP3 Awards 2023 (Public Knowledge)

Oct 2-6––Digital Inclusion Week 2023 (NDIA)

Oct 2––All Together For Digital Inclusion - Stakeholder Summit 2023 (Digital Empowerment Community of Austin)

Oct 10-12––AnchorNets 2023 (Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition)

Oct 12-13––Digital Inclusion Research Forum (Federal Reserve Banks of Dallas, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Kansas City)

Oct 12-13––FCC Tribal Workshop at Indian Island, Maine (FCC)

Oct 24––41st Annual Everett C. Parker Lecture & Awards Breakfast (United Church of Christ Media Justice Ministry)

Oct 26-27––Oregon Connections: Navigating the Funding Flood (Oregon Connections)

Oct 29-31––The CyberShare Summit (NTCA—The Rural Broadband Association)

Nov 8––A Look Ahead to Access and Regulation in the Not-Too-Distant Broadband Future (Silicon Flatirons)

Nov 15-17––U.S. Broadband Summit (Fierce)

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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