The Center for Public Integrity has followed the local choice debate closely. Their team has travelled to Tennessee and North Carolina to talk to lawmakers, visited communities seeking high-speed networks, and dug deep into the source of influential campaign funds. Allan Holmes and his team have assembled a collection of articles and audio that offers the right amount of history, backstory, and anecdotes to properly understand these issues.
Holmes published an article last August that took a deep look at telecommunications laws at the state level. Along the way, he spoke with State Senator Janice Bowling from Tullahoma. MuniNetworks.org readers know that the community is known for LightTUBe, the fiber network offering an oasis of high quality connectivity in an otherwise broadband desert. At the time, the Wilson and Chattanooga petitions were still fresh but Tennessee communities had long dealt with the problem of poor connectivity from incumbents. From the August article:
“We don’t quarrel with the fact that AT&T has shareholders that it has to answer to,” Bowling said with a drawl while sitting in the spacious wood-paneled den of her log-cabin-style home. “That’s fine, and I believe in capitalism and the free market. But when they won’t come in, then Tennesseans have an obligation to do it themselves.”
Holmes wrote about economic development in Tullahoma, a factor that seems directly tied to the presence of its municipal network:
Employment in Tullahoma lagged statewide job growth before theLightTUBe was turned on. Since the recession ended in 2009, two years after the city began offering broadband, the city has outpaced job growth in Tennessee. The city added 3,598 jobs from April 2009 to April 2014, a 1.63 percent annual growth rate, about double the statewide rate, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
For perspective, Holmes visited Fayetteville, North Carolina, where community leaders have tried and failed to initiate community network deployment. Even though the community has a generous store of fiber assets, state laws prevent municipalities from offering connectivity. Local officials see the nonsense behind the law, pushed through by telecom lobbyists.
For Steven Blanchard, chief executive of Fayetteville’s Public Works Commission, prohibiting Fayetteville residents from using the fiber network that’s already there doesn’t make sense.
“Why shouldn’t we be allowed to sell fiber if it runs by everyone’s house?” Blanchard said. “They are already paying for the fiber to be there, so why not allow them use it for telephone and Internet and capture back a lot of the cost they put in to have it there?”
The article also provides an excellent resource for those curious to know how much North Carolina and Tennessee state lawmakers received from the telecommunications industry. Public Integrity's graphs paint an alarming picture of corporate influence on state policy. Unfortunately, it is easy to look at the graphs, purse one's lips, and think, "so THAT'S the reason why."
In a more recent piece Public Integrity's Jared Bennett interviews Holmes about his experiences reporting on the right for local authority. "Behind the municipal broadband battle" is a collection of brief interviews with people in the trenches. Holmes offers context for each interview.
In the Bennet piece, Holmes shares conversations he had with a number of business owners, residents, and community leaders in Tullahoma and elsewhere:
JB: In the past the president has framed this as a jobs creation issue. And that’s what it sounds like when you talk about companies like Agisent and Matt Johnson’s company, but is that what you found through your reporting?
AH: Yeah, you even talk to big investors, venture capitalists, about the importance of having broadband in a city and you find out that, yeah, Obama is right. We talked to Cameron Newton in Tullahoma. He was an investment banker in New York and for a very large bank in Charlotte, and now he’s a venture capitalist and we sat down in his office in Tullahoma to ask him about the importance of broadband to a city.
“Manufacturing in the U.S. is very, very different than it used to be, and it’s changing rapidly. And now you’re having much more automation. The next move in manufacturing is to additive manufacturing, which is 3D printing. None of that equipment is going to be isolated so in other words it’s all going to be connected. So if you don’t have broadband accessibility, if you don’t have fiber in your community, where are these manufacturing plants going to go? Well, they are going to go to areas that do have it.”
The Center for Public Integrity also produced this Reveal Radio story, "Duking It Out With Telecom Giants."
Host Al Letson presents Holmes's journey into money in state politics, threats from incumbents, and the power of the telecom industry.