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"Little Gig City" And Friends Go to Nashville to Fight for Local Authority

As the people of Tennessee wait for the court to determine their broadband future, state and local leaders in Nashville are hearing municipal network advocates and foes.

The bipartisan Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, anticipating state legislation aimed at removing state anti-muni laws next session, recently heard from advocates of municipal networks. Those in favor of keeping state barriers in place also took a seat at the table. The Commission includes state legislators and local community leaders. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals is now considering Tennessee's petition to vacate FCC's February decision to overturn state laws against local authority.

The Same Old Argument

The Tennessee Cable Association (TCA), representing large incumbent cable providers, repeated the same misinformation we have heard before - that municipal networks are "failures." Their lawyer pointed to debt as proof-positive that "these communities that have gone into this business have done very poorly," reported the Johnson City Press.

Chattanooga's EPB President Harold DePriest summed up the weakness of that statement when he said, “It’s the same reason you have a 30-year mortgage on your house, instead of a 5-year mortgage.” It's about long-term vision and planning.

A number of representatives from Tennessee communities served by municipal networks attended the meeting and presented the facts. Chattanooga's world-famous fiber network is often in the limelight, but smaller Tennessee towns with networks like Erwin and Jackson have benefitted from their investments and other communities, such as Cleveland, have plans to follow suit.

Erwin Making Strides

Erwin Utilities sent fiber optic engineer John Williams who called out TCA for using the word "failure" and describing it as a mischaracterization. Williams noted that Erwin Utilities, who initiated a pilot project last March, is already serving 200 of 300 potential customers after only 7 months of operation. Customers in Erwin have access to symmetrical 25 Mbps, 100 Mbps, and 1 Gbps connectivity along with telephone service. Internet access from Erwin Utilities is available for $49.95, $69.95, and $199.95 respectively; you can call Erwin "Little Gig City."

The fiber system was originally deployed to manage the electric utility smart meter system, so much of the infrastructure is already in place.


Erwin has not incurred any debt to deploy its fiber pilot project, says Williams. The utility has taken an incremental approach, leasing out excess capacity from the electric system and using proceeds to build out one section at a time. For phase one, scheduled to start any day, Erwin Utilities only needs 15 percent of current electric customers with smart meters to sign up for fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) services for the network to pay for itself. They plan on offering FTTH across the entire service area within five years.

A small town like Erwin, population 6,000, does not have the density to attract large providers for fast, affordable, reliable connectivity. Their municipal utility has a plan to serve people which will not violate Tennessee's state restrictions, but Williams spoke before the Commission in support of removing those limitations:

I would argue that every municipal broadband deployment has been successful...The biggest thing we like to point out about municipal projects, specifically ours, is the availability to rural customers who may be underserved by existing services. In Unicoi County, only 75 percent is covered by a cable company, so 25 percent of our electric service area doesn’t have access to broadband.

A Cooperative Point of View

In addition to Erwin Utilities, Cleveland Utilities CEO Ken Webb and Ben Lovins, Senior Vice President from Jackson Energy Authority's Telecommunications Division (JEA) supported the notion of removing state prohibitions blocking Chattanooga, Erwin, and others from expanding to other areas. Also providing perspective was Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association's Mike Knotts, reported the Chattanoogan.

Knotts drew a parallel between the expansion of broadband today and the roll out of electrification in the 1930s in which rural cooperatives played in instrumental role. He suggested nonprofit entities with the ability to spread costs out over long periods of time, rather than private companies, would be the best option to get the job done once again:

That was the very simple magic that took, in 10 years, less than 10 percent of American farms being electrified to 100 percent — not much more in the secret sauce other than that.

Pilots and Plans: It's All About The Local

In addition to serving 18,000 customers, the JEA telecom division brings in annual revenue of approximately $30 million, according to Lovins. Small-businesses, students, and ratepayers are only a few of the many who benefit. Lovins went on to provide numerous examples of how the investment has improved the quality of life in Jackson.

The network has kept the town competitive when, in the late 1990s, the incumbent provider told community leaders there was no need to upgrade because Jackson didn't need high-speed connectivity. Lovins told the Commission, "All of this was achieved through local choice, no taxes and no government funding."

Cleveland's Webb advocated for striking down the law because it prevents the Chattanooga EPB from serving neighbors who want and need fast, affordable, reliable service.

Cleveland, also working on a pilot project, points out that access to connectivity is no longer a luxury. The community's pilot project aims to fill in gaps in service created by poor coverage from incumbents. According to Webb, he recently spoke with a local attorney who finally obtained adequate Internet access at office after 24 years of requests to the local incumbent. Cleveland leaders don't want to wait another 24 years to fill the gaps in service that plague local businesses.

Webb told the Commission:

Cleveland wants to offer its citizens the absolute best that we possibly can. … We don’t want to fall behind in Cleveland.

Legislative state barriers accomplish nothing except prevent better connectivity in urban and rural areas. Local communities feel the impact of local decisions. As the Court considers the Tennessee petition, they will understand local communities better if they take to heart the words of JEA's Ben Lovins:

Give local leaders the choice to work solutions that best fit their communities and that includes allowing our municipal systems to work together to help our neighbors.

While 6th Circuit Reviews Appeal, Organized Attack Begins In House

As the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals considers the FCC's decision to roll back Tennessee and North Carolina anti-muni laws, elected officials opposed to local authority are mounting an assault to head off possible enabling legislation. Their first target is the House of Representatives.

Poison Pens

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, and Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange all sent letters to the Chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, Fred Upton (R-MI). Their letters express derision at the thought of allowing local communities the ability to make decisions for themselves when it comes to ensuring local businesses and residents have the Internet access they need.

Communities with publicly owned networks such as Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Wilson, North Carolina, have prospered compared to those relying only on the large incumbent cable and telephone companies like Comcast and AT&T. Data suggest access to publicly owned networks contribute to local prosperity. Nevertheless, these elected officials have chosen to support big ISPs rather than their own constituents.

Elected Officials Protecting Campaign Interests

When the FCC released its Opinion and Order scaling back state restrictions in Tennessee and North Carolina, legislators backed by ISP powerhouses took up arms. They introduced bills, wrote editorials, and delivered speeches that put profits of AT&T and Comcast before the rights of Tennesseans and North Carolinians to have fast, affordable, reliable Internet access.

Tennessee Governor Haslam and North Carolina AG Cooper each filed an appeal, to reverse the FCC's decision and keep the laws limiting competition in place. Those appeals have been consolidated and are being considered together in the Sixth Circuit.

According to Stop the Cap!, advocates for better local connectivity have observed the way telecomunications legislation is passed in Tennessee:

Haslam’s critics contend the governor has delegated his own power to protect the interests of large telecommunications corporations operating in his state — companies the critics claimed wrote and lobbied for a state law that established anticompetitive broadband corporate protectionism in Tennessee. Among Haslam’s top campaign contributors are AT&T and Comcast — Tennessee’s two largest telecommunications companies.

Haslam is not the only state leader to speak out who has a vested interest in keeping restrictions in place.

As Stop the Cap! notes, all four of these prominent politicians received considerable campaign contributions from powerhouse ISPs with an interest in limiting competition.

For a quick rundown, we collected some links:

Early Attack

The latest assault is an effort to head off federal action to guarantee local Internet choice. In addition to the FCC Order in February, Senator Cory Booker introduced such a bill last January with the support of Senators McCaskill and Markey. The issue has gained more attention over the past year as word spread of the benefits experienced in Chattanooga, Wilson, and other cities with publicly owned networks.

Big incumbent providers write checks to state lawmakers with one hand as they write legislation with the other. This is just one of the many problems with massive monopolies cornering the market in essential services: they have all the access they need to stifle competition. As long as this is the preferred campaign finance method, voters are the only ones who can punish elected officials who put big corporate interests ahead of local needs.

Resource Central: TN and NC Appeal FCC Decision to Restore Local Authority

Nine months ago, the FCC voted to peel back laws in Tennessee and North Carolina that eliminate local authority and discourage expansion of broadband investment. As was expected, both states filed appeals and those appeals were consolidated for review by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit covering Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

It has been a long and arduous journey for the parties, their attorneys, and local authority advocates. In order to help readers stay informed of the parties and their arguments, we gathered together a collection of resources related to the original Order and the Appeal. 

Downloads of briefs are available as attachments here.

Chattanooga Crushes It - Marketing, Technology, and Nearby Communities - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 175

Chattanooga returns to the Community Broadband Bits podcast this week in episode 175 to talk about their 10 Gbps upgrade, the fibervention campaign, TN4Fiber, and having surpassed 75,000 subscribers.

For so much content, we have three guests joining us from Chattanooga's Electric Power Board (the EPB in EPB Fiber): Danna Bailey is the VP of Corporate Communications, Beth Johnson is the Marketing Manager, and Colman Keane is the Director of Fiber Technology.

Danna gives some background on what they are doing in Chattanooga and how excited people in nearby communities are for Chattanooga to bring local Internet choice to SE Tennessee if the state would stop protecting the AT&T, Comcast, and Charter monopolies from competition.

Beth tells us about the Fibervention campaign and how excited people are once they experience the full fiber optic experience powered by a locally-based provider.

And finally, Colman talks tech with us regarding the 10 Gbps platform, branded NextNet. We tried to get a bit more technical for the folks that are very curious about these cutting edge technologies on a passive optical network.

Read the transcript from episode 175 here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 25 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. You can can downl this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Warm Duck Shuffle."

Small Town Coop, Big Gig Connection

In an April 2015 press release, the telecommunications cooperative Nemont Communications announced their plans to make the small, rural town of Scobey, Montana the first gigabit community in the state. The network will serve commercial, governmental, and residential customers in this Northeastern Montana town of just over 1,000 people. This speed increase to gig-level is a result of upgrades to the existing fiber network.

Scobey is inside of Nemont’s 14,000 square mile service territory where they began upgrades to fiber in 2007. The cooperative dates back to 1950 when farmers in the area organized to form their own telephone systems. The current service territory spans parts of Northeastern Montana, Northwestern North Dakota, South Central Montana, and Northern Wyoming. 

Bridging the Rural Digital Divide 

Nemont CEO Mike Kilgore sees the plan for Scobey as a first step for the largely rural state of Montana to push toward ultra high-speed Internet in every corner of the US:

“On January 18, 2013, former FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski issued the Gigabit City Challenge to bring at least one ultra-fast Gigabit Internet community to every state in the U.S. by 2015. Today, thanks to the tireless efforts of our talented employees, Nemont is proud to report that Montana now has a Gigabit community.”

$117,000 Broadband Service Disaster From Charter

Shocking horror stories about incumbent ISPs reaching new lows for poor service are now so common that they have become routine. A story from Ars that recently went viral puts a human face on the frustration millions of Americans endure just trying to determine if Internet access is available where they choose to live. First, here is the gist of the story.

Cole Marshall, a work-from-home web developer, decided he wanted to build a new home on the outskirts of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. While scouting properties, he confirmed with local incumbent ISPs Comcast and Frontier online and by phone that they could offer sufficient Internet access to his favored lot.

When Marshall completed construction and contacted Charter, the cable company offered to provide the service only if he paid $117,000 to extend their network to his home. And Frontier? Frontier mislead him too, pricing the job at $42,000 to bring him the 24 Mbps service they’d promised they could provide. 

When all was said and done, Charter couldn’t provide affordable service at all. Marshall is now stuck with Frontier’s sloth-like DSL broadband speeds of 3 Mbps download / 1 Mbps upload for all of his small business needs. These speeds fall well short of the 25 Mbps download / 4 Mbps upload the FCC defines as “broadband.” 

Marshall’s story illustrates well the problems with existing broadband services in and around the city of Sun Prairie that led citizens and city leaders to recently pass a resolution to build a municipal broadband network in some areas within the city limits. While Marshall’s address is outside the purview of Sun Prairie’s planned network buildout, the potential for future expansion of this publicly-owned network may be Marshall’s only hope for a solution to his broadband connectivity problems.


Frontier and Charter officials told Sun Prairie city leaders in June during the network’s planning phase that their plans to build a municipal network were misguided. At that same meeting, Frontier and Charter also warned that they would likely cut jobs if the city chose to build the municipal network.

When Alderman Hariah Hutkowski asked Frontier and Charter officials if they would build a fiber-optic network so the city wouldn’t have to, the incumbents offered no response. Hutkowski called them out:

“What I see is that you will provide just enough to people to make a profit, but our community has other needs, we have demands through schools, residents streaming service, and demand is moving toward higher capacity,” Hutkowski said.

The people of Sun Prairie, a city of about 31,000 just outside of Madison, simply want reliable broadband service from an organization that will operate with basic accountability to its customers. With the private ISPs refusing to provide that service, their pleas to stop a municipal network deployment ring hollow.

Marshall's story highlights at least two problems we see repeatedly across the United States. First, there is highly inadequate or nonexistent broadband service access at non-competitive rates across the country and private ISPs see no financial incentive to help. Second, it underscores common complaints about incumbent ISPs making terrible customer service errors that suspiciously resemble predatory bait-and-switch behavior. Once again, the consumer is caught in the middle as these two problems collide with disastrous results.

New Michigan Bar Journal Article: "The Internet and Municipal Broadband Systems"

A recent Michigan Bar Journal article by attorney Michael J. Watza, The Internet and Municipal Broadband Systems, provides a quick look at the FCC's Open Internet Order [PDF], the recent ruling on state barriers to municipal networks, and how the two may intertwine in Michigan. Watza's three-pager is a great resource for community groups, legislators, and advocates who want to share necessary information without overwhelming the reader.

In addition to providing summaries of each order, Watza offers hope for places that lack the Internet access they need to prosper. He acknowledges Michigan's first gigabit municipal network in Sebewaing and mentions the possibility of public private partnerships. Having worked with Michigan municipalities on telecommunications issues, he knows that other communities in the Great Lakes State also have their eyes on the future:

However, many communities interested in building their own broadband systems have been stymied by state laws written by and for the influential provider industry that either barred such systems or imposed onerous conditions on them. Michigan is one of a couple dozen states with these laws. By striking down such laws, the FCC has authorized and encouraged a significant economic tool for these communities. And perhaps most importantly, by freeing these communities to build on their own or partner with high-speed, low-cost, Internet-friendly private partners like Google (which has been actively pursuing such systems when incumbent monopoly providers have not), it is clear that the FCC is aggressively supporting rate control by the best alternative option in a free market: competition!

Read the entire article [PDF] online and share it with your Michigan friends.

Debate on Municipal Networks by Federalist Society Now Available

Our own Christopher Mitchell recently participated in a debate hosted by the Federalist Society. You can now listen to the debate at the Federalist Society website. We think it offers an intelligent airing of different points of view.

Chris, who is also Policy Director at Next Century Cities, disscussed the role of municipal networks in improving competition, reveiwed reguatory issues, and debated the anticipated legal outcome of February's FCC decision on local authority in Tennessee and North Carolina. He squared off against Charles M. Davidson, Director of the Advanced Communications Law and Policy Institute at New York Law School, and Randolph J. May, President of the Free State Foundation. Both organizations have spoken out against community broadband networks.

Rachel M. Bender, Senior Policy Director of Mobile Future, moderated.

Join MAG-Net Campaign on Prison Phone Rates and Lifeline Program Funding

The Media Action Grassroots Network recently launched a fall campaign, Fight for Our #RightToConnect, an appeal to the FCC to expand the Lifeline program to include coverage for broadband and to place a cap on prison phone rates. From MAG-Net:

Right now the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is working on two issues that could dramatically help close the gap on some of these disparities.  First, the FCC is considering reforms to the prison telephone industry that would establish an affordable flat rate for all phone calls out of jails, prisons and detention facilities, ending a practice of price gouging.  Second, the FCC is planning on modernizing a low-income program known as Lifeline, which would help low-income families afford an Internet connection at home.

We want to urge the FCC to move forward on both of these issues, which is why members of the Media Action Grassroots Network are kicking off a “Right to Connect” initiative.  During the next few weeks, we’ll be educating our communities on Lifeline and Prison Phones and encouraging people to take action on both of these issues.  Our activities will culminate with a 15-person delegation that will travel to Washington D.C. to meet with members of Congress and the FCC to demand they support our communities. Want to join us? 

Take a few moments to sign MAG-Net's petition, which will be delivered to the FCC on October 6th-7th.

MAG-Net has produced a #RightToConnect Outreach Kit with sample blasts, social media suggestions, and images that can help raise awareness.

Share the campaign on Facebook and Twitter to get the word out. For more information on what you can do, contact Steven Renderos at

Call to Action! Sign People's Brief Supporting Network Neutrality

To try to stop the Network Neutrality rules established earlier this year, big cable has filed suit against the FCC in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Advocates have drafted a brief to let the court know that the people are not willing to give up Network Neutrality. In a matter of days, that brief will be filed with the court.

We urge you to read the brief and sign on to show your support. Then spread the word on social media, email, and word of mouth, so we can present the brief with as many signatures as possible.

From the Net Neutrality Brief website:

Without Net Neutrality, the big cable companies would control the Internet, and make it harder for us to access information that doesn't align with what's best for the companies' bottom lines or that disagrees with their political leanings. If Net Neutrality weren't the norm, we might even have been blocked from engaging in the online activism that helped secure the Net Neutrality rules that we're now working to defend! 

Read the brief. Sign the brief. Spread the word.