Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam doesn’t want the public’s money to pay for publicly owned Internet infrastructure. He has no problem, however, writing a $45 million check backed by taxpayers and payable to the likes of AT&T in Tennessee.
"A Little Song, A Little Dance, A Little Seltzer Down Your Pants"
On Wednesday, Haslam introduced the “Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act,” another state sponsored handout to the national Internet Service Providers who have made countless broken promises to expand to rural areas. The bill contains some provisions dressed up to look like measures that make big strides for the state, and will be helpful, but it's not ground breaking.
The bill lifts existing state restrictions on electric cooperatives that may wish to offer retail Internet access to members. The state restrictions on co-ops are dubious anyway and could be challenged under federal law. For the state’s electric cooperatives that reach all over the rural areas, the bill is welcome, but communities near Chattanooga’s EPB gets the short end of the stick.
EPB, Chattanooga’s Municipal Electric Utility, has advocated for several years to expand beyond their service territory. Neighboring communities, such as Bradley and Polk Counties, need better connectivity because the national providers don’t consider their regions a good investment. Nevertheless, state law prohibits EPB from expanding to them and this legislation won't change that.
"Don't Confuse The Conversation"
State Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, where the local municipal network has jump started economic development and improved the quality of life, pointed out the problem in Haslam’s shell game legislation:
Bowling said the measure only goes halfway in removing regulatory limits that she said now limit fiber optic service in much of Tennessee "and keeps too many rural citizens from participating in the 21st century digital economy."
"I'm certainly glad that electric co-ops will be able to retail fiber services under this measure and I think that will be significant," she said. " I am amazed that some of the giant, investor-owned telecoms have been able to confuse the conversation by trying to make it about what is fair for the provider, instead of focusing on what is right for the consumer."
Bowling has introduced legislation to repeal the state's law that prevents municipal electric utilities that offer connectivity from expanding. The measure has had wide constituent support, as many of these efforts do, but elected officials at the state level who may be swayed by campaign donations are harder to convince.
Here, AT&T, Have Some Money!
Asked why he didn't include EPB and other municipal electric services, Haslam said, "You have a situation where we'd much rather have private providers rather than government-subsidized entities have the first crack at getting that done."
AT&T has collected billions in taxpayer subsidies over the years, and is about to receive a fair chunk of another $45 million.
Ignoring Sage Advice
Last summer, the state’s own Department of Economic and Community Development (TNECD) released a study that recommended eliminating the barriers that prevent entities like EPB from expanding. Haslam chose to dismiss his own agency’s recommendation to keep EPB corralled and AT&T happy.
AT&T has lobbied hard to keep EPB contained and appears to have won this round. To date, the national provider has had no interest in updating service outside Chattanooga. They know they won’t have to compete with EPB now, and still have no motivation to spend any of that taxpayer money in the region. The people in Bradley and Polk Counties, who have held public meetings, passed resolutions, and practically begged the state to allow EPB serve their community now know that their Governor chooses AT&T lobbyists over them.