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TN Study Suggests Stamping Out State Barriers
The results of a statewide Tennessee survey on residential and business connectivity are in and they ain't pretty. Thirteen percent of the state - more than 834,000 people - don’t have access to 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload, which is the FCC's definition of broadband. Authors of the study make a number of recommendations, the first of which is removing state barriers that stifle Internet infrastructure investment.
"...A More Open Regulatory Environment"
The study, commissioned by the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development (TNECD) earlier this year, includes feedback from more than 23,000 households and businesses.
From page 13 of the report:
The State of Tennessee could consider lifting administrative burdens and restrictions to broadband infrastructure investment to fostering a more open regulatory environment.
In the report, the authors provide detailed reasoning for why the state should embrace an open regulatory environment to encourage competition. They note that state barriers impact electric cooperatives, municipalities that operate electric utilities and cannot expand beyond their own service areas, and municipalities that do not operate electric utilities but can only build telecommunications infrastructure in unserved areas with a private partner.
The FCC came to the same conclusion in February 2015 and rolled back Tennessee state laws in order to encourage competition. Tennessee is leading the charge against the FCC's decision with North Carolina (even though NC's Attorney General criticized the law). The parties have filed briefs, attorneys have presented oral arguments, and now the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals is considering the case.
Holding Their Breath in Bradley
Cleveland Utilities (CU), serving Bradley County, is carefully searching for the best way to improve connectivity for its southeast Tennessee customers. After exploring a number of possibilities, CU sees a partnership with Chattanooga's EPB as the brightest opportunity but their collaboration rests on lawmakers in Nashville or the U.S. Court of Appeals.
The Need Is There, The Neighbors Are Close
CU President, Ken Webb knows the community needs and wants something better than AT&T for Internet access or cable TV from Charter Spectrum, especially in rural areas. Residents and business owners have gathered at community meetings. Local community leaders have passed resolutions asking the state to roll back restrictions and contacted CU directly but the utility's hands are tied as long as state barriers remain in place.
For over 7 decades, CU has served residents and businesses, providing electricity, water, and sewer. After a 2015 feasibility study revealed a $45 million estimate to build out a triple-play fiber to the entire county, CU began considering a limited pilot project.
They have been talking with their neighbors, EPB, about the possibility of partnering for some time Webb told the Times Free Press:
"We don't want to reinvent the wheel," Webb said Tuesday. "We continue to study our options (for adding telecommunications services), but we would prefer for the state to allow us to have the option of working with EPB."
Right now, the prospect of fiber in Bradley County appears to hinge on two possible outcomes. First, if last year's FCC decision to roll back state barriers is affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and legal review stops there, the EPB will not need to worry about a legal challenge.
No Longer Just a Luxury: Tennessee Communities Need Broadband Access Now
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, [no-glossary]if passed[/no-glossary], 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:
"Little Gig City" And Friends Go to Nashville to Fight for Local Authority
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
Cleveland Investigating Fiber Pilot Project in Tennessee
After a feasibility study on the possibility of a municipal triple-play fiber network left Cleveland Utilities feeling "…not overly optimistic…" community leaders have decided to rethink their strategy. The utility board recently voted 5-0 to look deeper at a network that would offer only Internet and voice services.
Rather than study the feasibility of serving the entire community, CU wants to first try their hand at working on a limited area with a pilot project. The next step is to work with a consultant that will conduct a more focused feasibility study and develop a business plan.
In June, CU CEO Ken Webb told the board:
"I will go ahead and tell you that it's not overly optimistic about us being able to provide 'triple play' [Internet, television and phone] services," Webb said. "The capital requirements are extensive, and the startup cost could present issues."
"There is a possibility of offering services that are not full-blown services," Webb said. "There are a lot of decisions yet to be made, and a lot of review has yet to take place."
After more review of the study, Webb asked the board at the July meeting to consider further consideration for the pilot project, much like the process in Erwin, Tennessee. The Times Free Press covered the meeting where Webb reported that Erwin expected to break even on its pilot project once it took on 180 customers. After recently commencing the project, it quickly signed up 150 subscribers.
Chattanooga's EPB, Local Cooperative, and Athens Utility Board Collaborate For Better Internet
Athens, Tennessee, has struck a deal with Chattanooga's EPB and the Volunteer Energy Cooperative (VEC) that could facilitate the city's interest in a municipal fiber network. According to the Times Free Press, the Athens Utility Board (AUB) hammered out the final agreement earlier this month.
AUB is leasing fiber from VEC that carries a gigabit signal from EBP to the AUB system.
According to the article, AUB has explored the prospect of developing their own fiber network as early as November 2013 and now offers Internet access to one business in a local business park. AUB General Manager Eric Newberry told the AUB Board that they plan to approach other local businesses to set up additional commercial accounts. They plan a slow buildout and urge local businesses, many of them clamoring for a reliable connection, to be patient as they take next steps.
Athens is part of the Chattanooga-Cleveland-Dalton area in the southeast corner of the state and home to around 13,500 people. In March, the City Council voted unanimously to pass Resolution 2015-11 supporting local authority for telecommunications. [See the PDF of the Minutes p.1]
Thusfar, the investment has cost $58,258.69 for labor, materials, and equipment. The Board had budgeted $100,000 for the project.