Next City - April 20, 2017
Tennessee Bills Send Message on Municipal Broadband
Written by Josh Cohen
In a world increasingly reliant on high-speed internet for all facets of life, about 34 percent of Tennesseans lack broadband access. Two state bills were considered this year to remedy that. One would’ve allowed city-owned high-speed internet infrastructure to expand at no cost to residents. Another outlined an offer of $45 million in subsidies to private internet service providers to build the same infrastructure. Only the latter passed.
Unsurprisingly, surrounding towns and suburbs want access to that network. EPB wants to expand as well. But they cannot. A state law pushed by private telecom companies prohibits public utilities with broadband networks from expanding beyond city limits. The Federal Communications Commission overturned that law in 2015, but an appellate court reversed the FCC’s ruling, meaning the law still stands.
State Senator Janice Bowling’s bill would’ve changed Tennessee law to allow municipal broadband providers to expand beyond city limits. Tullahoma, a city in Bowling’s district, also has a municipal broadband network. EPB said it could expand its network infrastructure with cash on hand and private loans. But both Bowling’s bill and its companion in the House died in committee.
Instead, the legislature passed the Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act, a bill pushed by Governor Bill Haslam. It provides $45 million in tax breaks and grants to private companies such as AT&T and Comcast to build broadband infrastructure in communities that need it.
“I find that infuriating. Chattanooga has not only one of the best networks in the nation, but arguably one of the best on Earth and the state legislature is prohibiting them from serving people just outside of their city boarder,” says Christopher Mitchell, Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative.
Mitchell says it’s far easier and less risky for a company to expand existing infrastructure than to build a new network from scratch, which is what the private companies can now do. But that argument didn’t outweigh the lobbying strength of the telecom giants.
“It’s a question of how much grassroots effort is needed to overcome telephone and cable lobbying,” Mitchell says. “I had hoped this year we’d see Chattanooga and other municipal broadband cities have enough grassroots power. But they don’t. They need to do more organizing.”
“I think any city’s effort would face that. It’s not just the potential legal barriers, it’s also the message of ‘this will be difficult,’” says Mitchell.
Still, there is strong support for municipal broadband in the U.S. A new survey from Pew Research Center found 70 percent of people think governments should be able to build their own broadband networks if “existing services in the area are either too expensive or not good enough.”
“We’re on the right track,” Mitchell says. “In many ways, I don’t view [municipal broadband] as inevitable in every state, but we’re going to see communities pushing for it more and more.”