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.