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With startup funds and an engagement and outreach grant, University of Tennessee assistant professor Sreedhar Upendram has launched an initiative that brings broadband internet to underserved rural communities across Tennessee.

“A lot of parents are pulling into McDonald’s parking lots in rural Tennessee to access free internet just to help their kids do homework,” Upendram said.

As education, professional training and job seeking become more dependent on the internet, communities without affordable access are at risk of getting left behind.

Upendram, with the department of agricultural and resource economics in the Herbert college of agriculture, started his work last year in Wayne County. He and a local community leader secured funds to buy a set of mobile wireless hotspots for the area’s library.

Library patrons can check out the devices for two to three days at no cost; all they were asked to do was fill out a survey about their internet needs.

The program quickly took off.

Since then, Upendram’s project expanded from Wayne into both Bledsoe and Hancock counties, and each took an individual approach to the broadband problem.

“The program is growing very quickly, because there’s a lot of demand. In Hancock County Public Library, there’s a wait list of over 30 people to check out the mobile wireless hotspot,” Upendram said. “So far, we’ve helped about 96 families and 182 adults across the three rural communities to access internet.”

The program primarily targets counties identified by the state as distressed, with a low per capita income and high rates of poverty and unemployment. Although these counties may have access to high-speed internet, many families are unable to afford it.

“Half of the problem is not only access,” Upendram said, “it’s affordability.”

Using information from the surveys, communities can apply for federal and state grants, as well as appeal to internet service providers that may be able to make special accommodations.

Through a grant from the Tennessee State Libraries’ Training Opportunities for the Public program, Wayne County leveraged the data from the surveys and has since added three more mobile wireless hotspots for checkout, as well as digital literacy courses for seniors, adults and youth. Courses cover a wide range of computer skills from basic cybersecurity to coding.

Bledsoe County has since applied for a downtown Wi-Fi grant through the Appalachian Regional Commission to create a free wireless network in a five-block radius of downtown Pikeville.

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