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.
Correction: When speaking with Lee Brown and John Williams for episode 235 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, they let us know that Williams did NOT attend the meeting of the Commission. He did express the sentiments quoted above, but did not make the trek to Nashville. We apologize for passing on an incorrect version of events.