Sandi Wallis, a resident of northern Bradley County in Tennessee, doesn’t simply want to have ultra-fast, reliable broadband access for the fun of it. She needs it to run her home business. Her school-age children need it too:
“I've had to send my kids into town to do their homework. We’ve had to go into town with our business laptops to download updates to our programs for our accounting business because we can’t do it at home. We need service — not just reliable service and not just for entertainment.”
Wallis made the comments at a recent meeting hosted by the Bradley County Chamber of Commerce in Tennessee. The meeting focused on a persistent problem in many parts of Bradley County - residents and businesses lack the fast, affordable, reliable, broadband access that is available via Chattanooga’s EPB fiber network in neighboring Hamilton County. The deficiency is taking its toll.
Cleveland, a city of about 43,000 in Bradley County, has explored the idea of building their own community broadband network. But business leaders, government officials, and residents across Bradley County and the State of Tennessee are all anxiously awaiting the results of the ongoing legal struggle over the state’s anti-muni law. In addition, a bill set for consideration at the next state legislative session would, if passed, allow municipalities like Chattanooga to expand their existing fiber broadband services to adjacent communities in Bradley County.
Don’t Mind the Gaps
Alan Hill, a representative from AT&T, suggested that rather than focusing on the broadband service gaps in the state, Bradley County should acknowledge AT&T’s positive contributions in the area:
“Instead of talking about the gaps, we need to celebrate what all has happened here because there is a lot of opportunities here for businesses that have services both wired and wireless.” Hill said.
Much like hiding a dirty family secret, large corporate providers believe that by ignoring a problem, it doesn't exist. Tell that to the thousands of residents and businesses that slug along on inadequate connections while gazing longingly toward Chattanooga. For community members like Dr. Terry Forshee, president of the local Cherokee Pharmacy, all that matters is that private competition is not getting the job done:
“The problem is I am one of the gaps,” Forshee said. “In my opinion, you had 27 years to bring cable down to me. I’m three miles away to the closest that you come. I’m waiting. I call every month.”
The Marvel of the Free Market?
The problem is not just about expanding broadband service to the rural, unserved parts of Bradley County. The broadband service in downtown Cleveland, Tennessee, is so poor, in fact, that business owners like Clark Campbell say they’ll soon have to leave town if something doesn’t change:
"We have multiple businesses in downtown Cleveland that compete with Chattanooga, but I had to move my family to Ooltewah this year in order to have adequate Internet service. We will consider moving our business to Hamilton County if the high-speed Internet problem is not solved in the next 12 months because we just can't compete with the speed, reliability and customer service of EPB in Chattanooga."
Send in the Munis
For the time being, the people of Cleveland and other communities throughout Bradley County and the rest of the state can only wait and wonder what it would be like to get the kind of broadband access that the residents of neighboring Chattanooga now enjoy. Meanwhile, Ken Webb, CEO of Cleveland Utilities (CU), is looking ahead at solving a problem where private enterprise has failed:
“‘I do not come in an adversarial role toward anyone or any other interest in this room,’ Webb said. ‘I do, in addition to representing Cleveland Utilities, come representing a significant number of citizens who realize and understand access to reliable and reasonably priced high-speed internet is no longer a luxury. Broadband availability has become such a necessity we can no longer wait for the service issues to be addressed.’”