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VOL. 40 | NO. 10 | Friday, March 4, 2016

Bill would open door for utilities to expand broadband by petition

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Legislation to expand broadband access across Tennessee is evolving – by necessity. State Rep. Kevin Brooks’ bill HB1303 to allow public utilities to provide Internet service outside their footprint is alive, he says, but it is being “argued vehemently.”

Opponents say it is “floundering.”

Whatever the case, Rep. Art Swann is drafting a different strategy, one he estimates could affect some 1 million Tennesseans wandering in an Internet wasteland.

Swann, a Maryville Republican, is pushing HB2408 with an amendment to enable people in unserved areas to petition electrical utilities and cooperatives for broadband service. The bill would allow petitions based on the number of rural road miles in the utility’s service area.

Swann

The new legislation differs from Brooks’ bill in that rather than giving utilities carte blanche to expand, “underserved” people would have to make the request for broadband, opening the door to more competition in their market, Swann says.

“The petition becomes the trigger,” Swann adds.

Once a group files a request for service, he explains, the private Internet providers in the area, such as AT&T or Comcast, would be put on notice the public company is about to compete for business.

“It’s a much more difficult scenario to fight for somebody that’s supplying service,” he contends.

Swann’s interest in rural areas spurred him to join this fight.

The cities of Alcoa and Maryville are well served in his Blount County district, but others cities such as Townsend and areas along the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are left without good Internet access, according to Swann.

“I just feel like we’ll never have development across the state for most people unless we have broadband there to serve their hospitals and their schools and their governments … and their homes too. Their homes are a major consideration,” Swann explains.

“And for industrial recruitment, it’s almost essential to have it.”

Swann’s bill was set to be considered Tuesday in the House Business and Utilities Subcommittee, which he chairs, but he decided to wait until a later meeting.

Meanwhile, Brooks, a Cleveland Republican carrying the broadband banner for more than a year, says he met with Gov. Bill Haslam and House Speaker Beth Harwell on the new legislation and feels, “We are gaining momentum.”

Brooks

“My big thing is this: If it’s not my train that gets us to the station, I’m fine. I just want to get us to the station,” Brooks explains.

“And I’m not in this for credit or self-promotion. I’m in this so every Tennessean can have broadband.”

Brooks says shifting the argument closer to the public and allowing municipalities and utilities to respond with service is the right move.

If the legislation passes and people begin petitioning utilities, 99 percent of the state could have broadband, according to Brooks.

Otherwise, hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans are likely to remain stuck in pockets of weak or no connection because private companies don’t want to put in the infrastructure to offer service.

Brooks and Swann might have gotten the House speaker’s attention, possibly softening her stance on a legal matter involving broadband expansion in Tennessee.

Says Harwell, “I appreciate Rep. Brooks and the group offering a compromise to work toward a solution on the broadband bill. This is an important issue for many Tennesseans, and for the economic well-being of this state.”

In litigation

Tennessee Attorney General Herb Slatery last year filed suit asking the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to set aside a Federal Communications Commission decision allowing municipal utilities to offer broadband outside their service area.

Slatery contends the FCC “unlawfully inserted itself between the state of Tennessee and the state’s own subdivisions,” according to an Associated Press report.

Gov. Haslam, Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey in 2015 opposed the FCC decision in favor of Wilson, N.C., and Chattanooga utilities, even as federal regulators said state laws hurt competition and economic development.

In fact, state law prohibits Chattanooga utility Electric Power Board from expanding outside its footprint to offer unserved areas one of the fastest broadband services in the nation. State law permits electric companies to offer statewide telecommunications services, but Internet and cable services are limited to the system’s footprint.

Chattanooga touts itself as “Gig City” because of its gigabit-speed Internet service, which is said to be 50 times faster than the national broadband average and turned the city into a hotbed for Web-based entrepreneurs.

Chattanooga’s EPB, clearly, wants to expand but is waiting on legislative action rather than depending on the FCC’s ruling. Their efforts are confounded by several legislators whose districts are miles from Chattanooga.

Republican state Reps. Glen Casada and Jeremy Durham, both of Williamson County, and Republican state Rep. Andy Holt of Weakley County in West Tennessee encouraged Slatery to sue the federal government last year, saying they didn’t think the FCC, an unelected body, should take action to overturn state law.

They called it a “slippery slope” and bad precedent involving a state-chartered entity and contended the FCC “usurped” state sovereignty with an “unconstitutional move.”

Casada and other Williamson County lawmakers adamantly oppose jobs and affordable housing measures approved by Metro Nashville voters last year, contending they would negatively affect the entire region.

Even with Swann’s bill, Casada remains somewhat opposed, though he hadn’t read the amendment when asked.

“My concern is we don’t want to put the taxpayers on the hook, committed to paying for something that’s a losing venture. So it just increases the taxes of that town because the municipal utility will have to go back to the treasury, will have to go back to the budget every year to fund a losing venture,” Casada says.

If the municipal utility could break even, he would be more amenable, but Casada contends the utility’s expenses would be much greater than what it would charge new customers outside its footprint.

Grass-roots effort

Joyce Coltrin, leader of Citizens Striving to Be Part of the 21st Century, visited Capitol Hill early this session along with members of tn4fiber, a group seeking better broadband service across Tennessee

Coltrin, who owns J&J Nursery, and about 150 other Volunteer Energy customers are stuck in a pocket of weak connectivity in southwest Bradley County just outside EPB’s range and find themselves in the same situation as last year. She favors Brooks’ bill but would gladly take Swann’s compromise plan.

“This is my business,” she says, explaining why the issue is so important. “That’s the story for everybody out here.”

Private providers have broken promises over and over, she adds, leaving the area without service. Consequently, farmers who run chicken houses have difficulty running their facilities online, and people such as a medical transcriptionist asked to work from home struggle to get the job done, she says.

School children and college students also have to find a place they can log on when they get out of class, she adds, arguing people in the area feel like they’ve been singled out by the telecommunications companies.

If Brooks and Swann can gather momentum over the next two months, Coltrin and the rest of southwest Bradley County could be rewarded for their persistence.

And, as Brooks says, the measure isn’t exactly what he was looking for, but if it works, he’ll take it.

“I want broadband coverage from Memphis to Mountain City, and from Chattanooga to Carthage and anywhere else in between. This would get it there,” he adds.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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