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Change.org Petition: CA Lawmakers, Vote for Greater Local Authority, Don't Abandon Copper Yet

The California State Assembly will soon vote on three bills that have significant implications for rural Internet access initiatives in the Golden State. An online Change.org petition is asking you to urge lawmakers to give local communities the authority to determine their own Internet access needs.

On April 20th, 2016, the State Assembly will vote on a bill to provide state funding for community-based efforts aimed at improving broadband access in rural areas. And during the current session this week, California Represenatives will vote on two additional bills, drafted by lobbying groups working for the telecom industry, which seek to give incumbent providers even greater power to control the quality and price of Internet access options that are available in these rural communities.

From the petition:

Bill AB1758 was drafted by rural broadband activists and sponsored by assemblymen Mark Stone, Eduardo Garcia, Marc Levine, and Mike McGuire. It extends state funding and grant programs to local agencies and consortiums to plan and build community based internet solutions in communities throughout the state that have been ignored by big telcom. The bill requires a super majority to move from committee to vote. Committee members need to hear from people around the state to move this bill forward. If it dies in committee, funding will cease, and rural communities around the state will be at the mercy of AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner, etc. AB1758 comes to discussion on April 20th, 2016.

The petition describes two other bills up for consideration, AB2130 and AB2395, which will greatly influence the use of California Advanced Services Funds, allowing large corporate cable and telecom incumbents access to those funds. Local communities will have very little opportunities to obtain those same grants under the proposed changes.

One of these bills will allow AT&T to retire copper lines; rural areas are not ready for such an abrupt change. We've covered how AT&T and other big incumbents have pressed state legislatures for the ability to abandon copper in favor for cheaper technology.

Check out the online petition for more detail.

AT&T Tries to End the Magic of One Touch Make-Ready

On the border of Kentucky and Indiana a fight is brewing as AT&T and Google Fiber have both announced plans to bring Gigabit Internet service to Louisville, Kentucky. Home to over half a million, the city could see major economic development with new ultra high-speed Internet access, but there’s a problem: the utility poles.

AT&T is suing the city over a “one touch make-ready” ordinance. On February 11, 2016, the Louisville Metro Council passed the ordinance in order to facilitate new competitors, i.e. Google Fiber. 

Utility Poles: Key to Aerial Deployment

Make-ready is the shorthand for making a utility pole ready for new attachments. Although it may seem simple, this process is often expensive and time-consuming. To add a new cable, others may have to be shifted in order to meet safety and industry standards. Under the common procedure, this process can take months as each party has to send out an independent crew to move each section of cabling. 

To those of us unfamiliar with the standards of pole attachment it may seem absurd, but this originally made sense. Utility poles have a limited amount of space, and strict codes regulate the placement of each type of cable on the pole. Competitors feel they have to fiercely guard their space on the pole and cannot trust other providers to respect their cables. Make-ready must involve coordination between multiple providers and the utility pole owners. For some firms, like AT&T, this is an opportunity to delay new competition for months.

“One touch make-ready” simplifies the entire process. A single crew only makes one trip to relocate all the cables as necessary to make the utility pole. Under the amended ordinance in Louisville, the company that wants to add a cable to the utility pole can hire a single accredited and certified crew, approved by the pole owner, which will accomplish the work much more quickly and at lower cost. Also, it must pay for needed fixes or any damages to the pole-owner’s equipment and inform the pole-owner of any changes within 30 days. Such “one touch make-ready” policies quicken network deployments by preventing delays inherent in coordinating many different entities.

Why Oppose It? Private Utility Pole vs. Public Right-of-Way

AT&T is suing to stop Louisville from implementing this new policy in an effort to stop the new competition from entering the market. Ostensibly, AT&T argues they filed the suit because they own many of the utility poles (an estimated 25-40%) in Louisville. The company argues that the municipality does not have the authority to regulate the utility poles and that this is an unjust seizure of property. In other communities where this is the case, the new companies that want to use the utility poles must sign a licensing agreement with AT&T. 

AT&T’s argument, however, fails to recognize that local governments are required to manage the public Rights-of-Way (in layman’s terms, that is the land kept for the public interest near a roadway). The utility poles, although privately owned, serve a key function for connecting the public with needed services. That is why those utility poles are permitted on the public Right-Of-Way in the first place. Local governments, moreover, must have the authority to ensure that anything permitted on the public Right-Of-Way, such as utility poles, meet safety and industry standards in the quickest and most efficient way possible. 

Further Resources on “One Touch Make-Ready”

Chris interviews Ted Smith, Chief Innovation Officer for Louisville in Community Broadband Bits Episode 193. Smith describes how “one touch make-ready” is quicker, safer, and more efficient to use the utility poles in the public Rights-of-Way to their full potential for the good of the community.

For more information on the importance of “one touch make-ready,” check out analyses from the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, Next Century Cities, and FTTH Council. For an in-depth analysis of Right-of-Way regulations, listen to Sean Stokes of Baller, Herbst, Stokes & Lide on Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode 169.

Holland, Michigan Pilot Project Could Lead to More

pilot project in the City of Holland, Michigan is now delivering gigabit speed Internet service via a dark fiber network built by the city more than two decades ago; three commercial buildings are connected. The project, led by the Holland Board of Public Works (HBPW), is the first phase in an effort to develop a municipally owned and operated fiber network.

Holland is home to about 33,500 people and situated on the shores of Lake Michigan. The community is known for its roots in Dutch culture and is a popular summer tourist destination. Windmills and tulips dot the landscape.

Daniel Morrison, the president of a software company in Holland and a member of a local public interest group called Holland Fiber, recognizes that businesses need fast, affordable, reliable connectivity:

“Our whole business is online,” he told the Holland Sentinel newspaper. “We’re working with clients all over the world and we want to be able to work as quickly as possible.”

Morrison’s company is a pilot tester. After the testing program began in January, Morrison Tweeted out a screen grab showing his Internet speeds:

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Pretty darn fast.

Toward a Municipal Network?

Pilot testing is set to last for three months to allow Holland’s Board of Public Works (BPW) to test out network technologies and solicit feedback from testers. All of the pilot testers are getting free fiber Internet service during the testing period.

Holland's BPW plans to apply their findings from the test toward a business plan for a municipal network for the entire service area. They will also use the business plan to support an application to the State of Michigan to become an authorized Internet Service Provider. BPW officials expect state regulators to respond to their application by the fall of 2016.

History of Holland’s Fiber Network

Holland first installed a 17 mile, 48-count fiber optic ring in 1992. It successfully facilitated a “smarter” power grid for the city, improving the reliability of various electrical facilities and equipment. In 2003, the city extended the fiber network to most of the school facilities in the local school districts.

Since the mid-1990s, the BPW has also provided limited wholesale Internet services to a small number of businesses that need high capacity data services. After expansion and extension of the network over the years, Holland now has 76 backbone miles of fiber, more than 150 total route miles, and fiber counts of up to 288 strands.

Envisioning a Better Future

Holland was one of the many cities across the country that tried unsuccessfully to lure Google Fiber to their town in 2010. After that disappointment, BPW released a “Broadband Strategic Plan” in 2011 in which they laid out their objectives for providing improved Internet service in Holland. That plan resulted in a recommendation to invest $58 million in a municipal Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network. The Holland City Council never voted to adopt the plan.

Michigan has restrictions, but those state barriers apply when a community decides to invest in municipal Internet network infrastructure as was the case in Sebewaing. In those cases, a community can only build the network themselves if they receive fewer than three qualifying bids. Holland already has fiber in place.

The pilot project is an important step in developing a municipal fiber network in Holland. With the existing infrastructure already in place, the community can assert local authority over the development of a 21st century utility that will benefit the businesses, government services, and residents in this community for years to come.

AT&T Celebrates, Tennessee Families Go Another Year Without Internet Hope

As I write this, I suspect the "platoon" of lobbyists from AT&T and Comcast in Nashville are waking up with hangovers from celebrations last night after they once again defeated a bill to restore local authority in Tennessee. After a grassroots uprising, we thought the state would finally allow communities to decide for themselves if networks like Chattanooga's famed gigabit EPB would be able to expand.

Color me extremely disappointed - not because AT&T won, but because I fooled myself into thinking this grassroots mobilization might matter.

From the Times Free Press,

On Tuesday at the state Capitol in Nashville, a platoon of lobbyists and executives, including AT&T Tennessee President Joelle Phillips, were present in the House hearing room or watching on a video screen as Brooks presented the bill and the amendment.

...

It failed on the 5-3 [committee] vote with Rep. Marc Gravitt, R-East Ridge, voting for Brooks' amendment and Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, a one-time AT&T executive, voting against it.

Eight people voted on the bill. AT&T and Comcast formed the majority of the 27 lobbyists fighting against the bill according to Karl Bode.

People in Bradley County have either no service or poor access from companies like AT&T - but Chattanooga's EPB is not allowed to expand due to a state law pushed by the cable and telephone companies nearly 20 years ago to prevent competition.

These are people whose children have to go to libraries or fast food restaurants every day to do their homework. These are businesses that can barely compete in the digital age because AT&T doesn't view modern connectivity in the region an investment that would garner a fat return.

But alas, money and corporate influence again ruled the day in Nashville, where the Governor and others have continued to refuse to admit there is any problem worth fixing. This lede from Times Free Press answers the question of why companies like AT&T "donate" so much to political campaigns:

Gov. Bill Haslam says efforts by EPB and other municipal electric services to expand high-speed Internet to rural areas won't fully solve Tennessee's broadband accessibility issues and doesn't fairly treat for-profit servers like AT&T and Comcast.

In the face of this injustice, the Governor's first concern remains with what is fair to AT&T and Comcast, not what is best for the millions of Tennesseeans struggling with no connectivity or last generation slow Internet access.

To cover any charges they are doing nothing, they have announced an official "kick the can down the road strategy." Consider the Facebook post from AT&T executive turned state Legislator Patsy Hazlewood:

The state has invested $250,000 for a comprehensive study of broadband in TN. The report will be presented in June and will do a number of things. It will define broadband--which has a wide variety of definitions by both providers and customers across the state. The report will outline options for deployment and penetration on a statewide basis.

Great - one hopes that as parents drive their children to do homework while parked in front of closed libraries with active Wi-Fi access points that the state will soon decide how to define broadband.

This is why the FCC ruling to restore local Internet choice to communities is so important and oral arguments for the appeal are this week.

What remains to be done is a greater grassroots mobilization to demand that Nashville allow communities to solve their own problems. Republicans regularly critize Democrats for trying to enact a "nanny" state where the government refuses to let people make their own decisions. But when those same Republicans are in power, we see them restricting local governments from solving their own problems locally.

Bradley County and the local governments therein should be free to work with EPB if that is their choice. All this nonsense about fairness to AT&T and studying the definition of broadband in the year 2016 are a direct result of AT&T's power in Nashville and the dependency of elected officials on powerful companies for political donations and favors.

One Touch Make Ready and Wireless Innovation in Louisville - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 193

When we asked Ted Smith, Chief Innovation Officer of Louisville, Kentucky, to join us for episode 193 of the Community Broadband Bits Bits podcast, we expected to talk about the one touch make ready policy they had enacted (and AT&T has since sued to stop). We did, but we ended with a focus on how networking is already improving the city.

We start off by focusing on the problem of adding new fiber networks to existing poles (many of which are owned by telephone company incumbents that are not particularly inclined to make life easy for new competitors). One touch make ready simplifies the process, resulting in many benefits for communities in addition to lowering the cost to build new networks. We explore that topic to start.

But at the end of the discussion, Ted and I discuss what Susan Crawford has termed a responsive city approach - Louisville is using all kinds of network attached devices to improve city services in some of the lowest income neighborhoods.

Read the transcript from this show here.

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

This show is 26 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

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

Thanks to Kathleen Martin for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Player vs. Player."

Pulaski, Tennessee: "A Community Investing In Itself" With Better Connectivity

Pulaski, located in the area Tennesseans describe as the southern middle region of the state, has a fiber network other communities covet. When we contacted Wes Kelley, one of the people instrumental in establishing the network, he told us that the community always wanted to be more than "just Mayberry." Rather than settle for the sleepy, quaint, character of the fictional TV town, local leaders in Pulaski chose to invest in fiber infrastructure for businesses and residents.

A Legacy That Lives On

The county seat of Giles County, Pulaski has a long history of municipal utility service. The electric system was founded in 1891, and is the oldest in the state. The city also provides municipal water, sewer, and natural gas service. The electric utility, Pulaski Electric System (PES), serves most of Giles County, which amounts to approximately 15,000 customers. PES receives power from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and then distributes it throughout the county.

Pulaski is now known for its Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network, PES Energize, but the city's first adventure in providing municipal Internet access began in 1993. The city developed dial-up service and within five years, 1,500 homes were using the service. The city abandoned the dial-up service to offer Wi-Fi but then sold that system to a private company.

Preparing PES

Leaders in Pulaski had their sights on connectivity beyond the limits of Wi-Fi. In 2002, Mayor Dan Speer and Dan Holcomb, the New CEO of PES, began exploring a publicly owned fiber network. Holcomb had previously lead a Michigan utility that offered cable TV and so used his experience to help establish the PES Energize network. AT&T (BellSouth at the time) provided DSL service and Charter offered cable Internet access but neither company performed to the satisfaction of the community. In fact, Pulaski had always suffered through poor quality service from its incumbents.

When Holcomb arrived, the community engaged a consultant for a feasibility study to examine in detail the idea of a publicly owned fiber network; Holcomb, Speer, and the rest of the city's leadership were not confident about the results. Before the community moved forward, Holcomb felt it was important they carry out a customer survey and a second feasibility study. In the spring of 2003, the organization undertook a survey and used the results to ready the utility to step into its approaching role as a municipal network utility.

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Ready For The Next Step

Two years later, city and utility leadership felt that they were ready and completed a second feasibility study. This time, the results suggested a better outcome if Pulaski decided to invest in a publicly owned fiber network. In the spring of 2005, Pulaski developed a business plan that was approved in March by Tennessee's State Comptroller, as required by state law. In May, the city council voted to issue $8.5 million in General Obligation (GO) bonds to finance FTTH deployment and a data center.

Kelley had worked on a similar project in Hillsdale, Michigan, and even though Holcomb had asked him to work on the Pulaski project, Kelley was reluctant. Hillsdale had not pursued a network and Kelley did not want another disappointment. Once Pulaski's utility board and city council backed the plan, he knew the project had the support to move forward. Kelley accepted a position as Chief Marketing Officer for the utility. (Kelley talks more about his experience in Pulaski, Hillsdale, and his current role in Columbia, Tennessee, in episode 189 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Check it out to learn more.)

GO bonds are not one of the three most used types of financing for municipal networks but Kelley explained why they worked well for Pulaski. When a community chooses to fund any project with GO bonds, investors have an added measure of safety because the project and the loan are backed by the full faith and credit of the community. In other words, the issuing jurisdiction can use its taxing authority to pay back the debt, if necessary. As a result, the municipality, county, or other government entity issuing the bonds obtain very low interest rates. GO bonds require that the project developed be owned by the community and funds are typically used for projects that will be used by the entire community.

People Grow The Asset

Construction started in 2006, with fiber following the path of the existing power lines - when the lines were aerial, the fiber was installed on poles and when lines went underground, the new network followed suit. PES took the same approach with street lines and drops to homes. Line construction was completed in September 2006; the utility finished its Network Operations Center in November, and began testing right away. 

PES Energize began offering residential triple-play of cable TV, phone, and high-speed Internet services in January 2007 but its formal launch was not until the spring of 2007. When the network launched, it offered services at download speeds of 5 Megabits per second (Mbps), 10 Mbps, and 20 Mbps. Since then, speeds have increased. High-speed Internet access, video, and telephone are available in a variety of bundles or subscribers can purchase stand-alone Internet access for $35.95 (25 Mbps download / 5 Mbps upload), $75.95 (50 Mbps download / 7 Mbps upload), or $100.00 (100 Mbps download / 10 Mbps upload) per month.

By the time Wes Kelley left for his new position as Executive Director of Columbia Power and Water in 2012, PES Energize had achieved a 45 percent take rate. According to Mike Hollis, in charge of sales for PES Energize, the utility expands the network incrementally every year. By the end of January 2016, the network passed 5,609 homes and businesses. The utility's take rate is just under 49 percent in total with 2,729 of those properties passed subscribing to PES Energize.

According to Hollis, customers in rural areas are speeding up the expansions by footing the bill themselves. In PES' electric service area beyond the current network footprint, residents and business owners have approached the utility to ask for an estimate on the cost of expansion to their neighborhood. PES provides a figure for materials and pole attachment costs. Increasingly, these small pockets of rural neighborhoods, with nothing but dial-up or satellite, will chip in to pay for the construction. The neighborhood group cuts a check and the utility expands the network to that area.

Hollis noted that a local realtor is organizing the most recent example of a would-be subscriber funded expansion. He can't sell houses in his neighborhood where there is no high quality Internet access; homebuyers don't want houses with dial-up or satellite. He and his neighbors see the move as a necessary investment so he is leading the effort to obtain contributions from people in the neighborhood to pay for the fiber expansion.

Businesses In Mind

When PES launched, it also offered dark fiber leasing for organizations that wished to manage their own data needs. Most businesses in Pulaski purchase lit services and/or use the utility's data center. The facility housed a colocation facility, hosting services, and offsite data storage and was designed to withstand an F5 tornado.

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In 2011, Speers, who had transitioned from Mayor to Executive Director of the Pualski-Giles County Economic Development Council, discussed how the network had improved functionality for local businesses in an interview with Craig Settles. Whether a local printer sending artwork to Los Angeles or a graphic artist sending catalogue material to Canada, Pulaski businesses heaved a sigh of relief when they tapped into PES Energize. Businesses today overwhelmingly choose PES Energize - 82 percent of those passed subscribe.

From the interview:

"The golden rule of economic development is, take care of what you got. Take care of your existing industry first. There’s no question they will use it. If you’re lucky enough to get an industry to come in because they need the broadband, then that’s gravy.

During this current economic downturn, we’ve focused a lot of attention on our existing retail base and entrepreneur development. We’re teaching businesses how to maximize their use of the network so they can broaden their customer base nationally through the Internet. Our philosophy is to tie in the use of technology to help the businesses we have."

Looking At The Long Term

Pulaski has not experienced significant population growth since investing in PES Energize, but it has managed to avoid decline, a problem gripping similarly sized communities in the region. Tullahoma is a little over an hour away, Columbia is less than 45 minutes north; both communities offer potential employers municipal fiber connectivity. Pulaski made the investment first and can still compete for economic development opportunities in a peaceful setting.

When new businesses look for a location to open a facility where high-speed connectivity is a must, and search for a "Mayberry" to attract a quality workforce, Pulaski is on the short list because of its municipal fiber network.

Wes Kelley recognizes the long-term value of Pulaski's decision to create Internet network infrastructure. When we spoke with him for this article he reinforced what local officials and their constituents all over tell us - that the people of Pulaski knew the best course for themselves:

"It's a community investing in itself. Pulaski spent $8.5 million. They could have spent $8.5 million building a new rec center and a new pool but they didn't. They decided to put it in the air and in the ground to provide telecommunications infrastructure for the next 40 years. I think that's a powerful decision but it is a local decision…local control is critically important."

Missouri's HB 2078 Advances

Dear Readers: Since I first wrote this story with my attempt to analyze this bill, I have revisited my earlier interpretation. If you read this bill analysis before, you will notice some changes.

It is starting to become an annual pilgrimage to Jefferson City. Each year, House and Senate leaders on the telecom industry dole, introduce the same anti-competition bill.

This year the bill we are watching is HB 2078 in the House, yet another AT&T bill. We briefly introduced you to it in January when we requested you call Republican Representative Lyndall Fraker and the other Members of the House Utility Infrastructure Committee. Fraker is Chair of the Committee, often an indication that the committee will hear the bill.

AT&T donated $20,000 to the House Republican Campaign Committee, reports Ars Technica. Even though the check was deposited on February 15, 2016, Ars learned it was actually donated in September 2015, before session began. Regardless of when the money was donated, it is notable that AT&T contributed a total of $62,500 to political committees in Missouri, a place where the incumbent does not shy away from flexing its lobbying influence.

Last year, HB 437 was introduced and, after opposition from a number of private entities and public sector representatives, stalled in the House. Many of HB 437's anti-competitive characteristics are resurrected this year in HB 2078.

There are many things we don't like about this bill because it forces local governments to hold expensive referendums, dictates how they spend local revenue, and decrees cryptic rules that discourage partnerships with private providers.

"Competitive Services"

The bill would allow a municipality to offer "competitive services" as defined by the bill only if less than 50 percent of addresses in town are not being offered services "by any combination of service providers." We are not the only ones to document the overstatement of coverage of NTIA maps, which rely on self-reporting from the very companies that seek to limit municipal networks.

The bill goes on to provide various definitions of "competitive services," one of which is "communication service," which is an  ambiguous and confusing term that will have the effect of triggering the referendum requirement in the bill. Such an onerous requirement slows down local communities when they are trying to hasten economic development opportunities. 

The bill's backers attempt to put limits on what is "competitive" by preventing innovation from municipal networks. They use the words "substantially similar" to describe the types of services offered - another ambiguous term that can be conveniently reinterpreted later. 

"Exception"...Ya

HB 2078 creates a lip service "exception," as these bills always do, with a bar set so high no municipality could invoke it. We chose to highlight just a few aspects of a worthless section of a bill clearly and carefully drafted to prevent competition for the incumbents.

After a weekend reviewing the language of the bill, I see this as the correct interpretation :  that in order for a municipality to offer services by taking advantage of the exception, they must both double the speeds offered by incumbents and serve half the residences.

The most debilitating factor for any municipality that is subject to this law is that they would have to offer service to at least 50 percent of the addresses in the municipality from the first day. In other words, the community would have to wait until they have deployed a network to at least 50 percent of their community before they could begin providing service. Such a requirement would hobble any municipality that wanted to access revenues from one portion of a buildout to fund later expansions.

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A Word About Dark Fiber

The bill used the broad term "communications service" and "competitive service" which called into question whether or not it applied to dark fiber providers. Recently, Google Fiber announced it will lease dark fiber from Huntsville, Ting leases dark fiber from Westminster and has stated that it seeks similar partnerships elsewhere. There are other communities that have unique arrangements with private entities. HB 2078 inserts Missouri state law into potential partnerships between public and private entities that rest on dark fiber. It requires the same terms and conditions be made available to "all service providers." 

This section interferes with a municipalities ability to forge partnerships with private industry leaders. For example, the agreement between Westminster and Ting might have triggered the negative impacts of this bill because the two agreed on 5 years exclusivity for the provider. 

The Next Step for HB 2078

HB 2078 passed through the House Utility Infrastructure committee 16 - 2 on February 18th and next heads for the Select Committee on Utilities. If it passes there, it will move the the House Floor for approval.

Last year the same measure did not advance because it was a bad bill. Missouri already has restrictions in place but this bill will make it even harder for residents and businesses to ever have access to more choices and the better service that come with competition. The legislation is written and backed by elected officials who hold the distinction of being darlings of AT&T, CenturyLink, and Comcast. Until we put this issue to rest permanently by allowing local authority in Missouri, the pilgrimage to Jefferson City will get tougher every year.

Holding Their Breath in Bradley

Cleveland Utilities (CU), serving Bradley County, is carefully searching for the best way to improve connectivity for its southeast Tennessee customers. After exploring a number of possibilities, CU sees a partnership with Chattanooga's EPB as the brightest opportunity but their collaboration rests on lawmakers in Nashville or the U.S. Court of Appeals.

The Need Is There, The Neighbors Are Close

CU President, Ken Webb knows the community needs and wants something better than AT&T for Internet access or cable TV from Charter Spectrum, especially in rural areas. Residents and business owners have gathered at community meetings. Local community leaders have passed resolutions asking the state to roll back restrictions and contacted CU directly but the utility's hands are tied as long as state barriers remain in place.

For over 7 decades, CU has served residents and businesses, providing electricity, water, and sewer. After a 2015 feasibility study revealed a $45 million estimate to build out a triple-play fiber to the entire county, CU began considering a limited pilot project.

They have been talking with their neighbors, EPB, about the possibility of partnering for some time Webb told the Times Free Press:

"We don't want to reinvent the wheel," Webb said Tuesday. "We continue to study our options (for adding telecommunications services), but we would prefer for the state to allow us to have the option of working with EPB."

Waiting...Waiting...Waiting

Right now, the prospect of fiber in Bradley County appears to hinge on two possible outcomes. First, if last year's FCC decision to roll back state barriers is affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and legal review stops there, the EPB will not need to worry about a legal challenge. 

Bradley County residents and businesses may also have a chance at fiber if the state legislature adopts legislation introduced last year by Cleveland's Representative Kevin Brooks. Senator Janice Bowling sponsored the Senate version last year and the two vowed to carry on advancing the bill this year. The bill, that would restore local authority to invest in Internet networks, received backing from a number of organizations and local communities.

Hamilton County, home to Chattanooga and its world famous gigabit municipal fiber, is located immediately west of Bradley County and ready to expand to the communities that want access to the EPB gigabit. Due to Tennessee's restrictive state laws, EPB cannot serve beyond its current electric service footprint:

DePriest, who is also chairman of the Tennessee Fiber Optic Communities, said the Chattanooga utility is eager to expand into the parts of Hamilton County it doesn't currently serve, which includes about 9,000 homes in east Hamilton County, and into all of Bradley County, which has more than 50,000 homes and businesses.

"We have developed some plans and we will develop more," DePriest said. "We've already had more than a thousand people from that area write us, email or call us asking when they can get our (broadband service)."

"We think we have the expertise and the infrastructure already in place so that expanding into these areas would help them and help us," he said. "We would have to work out the arrangement with Cleveland Utilities and Volunteer Electric because this is their territory and we're not going to go anywhere where we are not invited and where it doesn't make good business sense."

Op-ed: Next-Generation Networks Needed

The Knoxville News Sentinel published this op-ed about Tennessee's restrictive broadband law on January 9, 2016.

Christopher Mitchell: Next-Generation Networks Needed

Four words in Tennessee law are denying an important element of Tennessee's proud heritage and restricting choices for Internet access across the state.

When private firms would not electrify Tennessee, public power came to the rescue. In the same spirit, some local governments have built their own next-generation Internet access networks because companies like AT&T refused to invest in modern technology. These municipal networks have created competition, dramatic consumer savings and a better business climate in each of their communities.

The four words at issue prevent municipal electric utilities from expanding their successful fiber optic Internet networks to their neighbors, a rejection of the public investment that built the modern economy Tennessee relies upon.

Current law allows a municipal utility to offer telephone service anywhere in the state, but Internet access is available only "within its service area." This limit on local authority protects big firms like AT&T and Comcast from needed competition, and they have long lobbied to protect their de facto monopolies. To thrive, Tennessee should encourage both public and private investment in needed infrastructure.

These municipal systems have already shown they can bring the highest-quality Internet services to their communities. Chattanooga's utility agency, EPB, built one of the best Internet networks in the nation. Municipal fiber networks in Tullahoma, Morristown and more have delivered benefits far in excess of their costs while giving residents and local businesses a real choice in providers.

Many of these networks are willing to connect their neighbors — people and businesses living just outside the electric utility boundary. If Chattanooga wants to expand its incredible EPB Fiber into Bradley County with the consent of all parties, why should the state get in the way?

Consider that Tennessee metro areas almost always have at least one high-speed Internet option. Those with municipal networks have a real choice in providers. Nashville is slated for Google Fiber. But there is no such hope on the horizon in rural areas, despite the billions of dollars that have been spent on subsidies to providers like AT&T.

While AT&T's lobbyists scheme to prevent competition, the federal government subsidizes AT&T operations with more than $500,000 per month in Tennessee alone. So much for the "private" sector.

When it comes to municipal networks, taxpayer dollars are rarely used. Private investors often finance municipal networks by purchasing long-term bonds and are repaid by the revenues from the network. The Tennessee Valley Authority strictly oversees municipal utilities to ensure they are not cross-subsidizing telecom services with electrical ratepayer revenues.

To the extent municipal networks affect taxpayers, the taxpayers benefit. EPB just announced that in 2015 alone, its payments in lieu of taxes exceeded $19 million to the 17 jurisdictions in which it operates.

When local businesses connect to municipal fiber, more of their money stays in the community. Compare that to how much communities without a real choice send to AT&T and Comcast headquarters in distant states. And thanks to the competition, residents and businesses pay less. Morristown estimates a $3.4 million annual aggregate savings from lower bills.

The state should encourage communities to be more self-reliant and to build resilient regions rather than taking the side of distantly-owned monopolies. The state should be focused on how to encourage investment in next-generation Internet networks, not limit it.

 

Christopher Mitchell is the director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. He is on Twitter: @CommunityNets.

Bradley County Urges Tennessee Lawmakers: High-Speed Internet Now!

Just this past week, we reported on the plight of Bradley County in Tennessee. Cut off from connectivity, families and businesses are considering leaving to nearby Hamilton County which has Chattanooga’s high-speed fiber network.

By a 12-1 vote, the Bradley County Commission urged the Tennessee legislature to pass a bill (Tennessee HB 1303/SB 1134) enabling public utilities to bring high-speed Internet to Bradley County residents. Current state law - right now embroiled in legal disputes - prohibits public utilities from expanding high-speed Internet access. 

Near-Unanimous Vote (12-1)

As reported in the Chattanoogan, the only naysayer to the resolution was the vice-chairman. He agreed that Charter and AT&T had failed to provide adequate Internet access to the county, but he expressed opposition to municipal networks. Although disagreeing with the resolution, he underscored how local control had disappeared with the current state law:

He said local governments at one time had leverage over providers when they had to come to them periodically for charters, but he said that control went away with the passage of the current law that he said was heavily lobbied.

The commissioners, however, felt that this vote was the only way forward. Some described how dependent their homes and businesses have become on Internet access, and others reiterated that the community suffered die to the lack of competition.

An Engaged Public Speaks Out

According to the Cleveland Daily Banner, the meeting attracted enough residents to pack the room. The people of Bradley County see the importance of better access in their future. Blake Kitterman, president of the Bradley County Young Democrats, told the Commission:

“When Bradley County citizens succeed, we all succeed, and EPB broadband expansion means an interconnected community…It means opportunities for businesses to affordably advertise their products, and students to be able to take part in higher forms of learning.”

According to the Banner, the crowd applauded every point supporting the resolution. The loudest and longest ovation was in response to Commissioner Mike Hughes when he summarized sentiment about incumbent providers Charter and AT&T:

““They had their opportunity, and they failed,” Hughes said. “It’s time to open it up.”