Tennessee Lawmakers Halt Debate on Broadband Expansion

Legislators have halted progress on two bills that would have enabled utilities to expand Internet connectivity outside current service areas in the state.

by / April 15, 2015
Two bills to expand municipal broadband in Tennessee have been tabled until next year. Shutterstock

Legislation that gives municipal utilities in Tennessee the right to expand their broadband services has been tabled until next year.

House Bill 1303 and SB 1134 were put on hold by state lawmakers due to “an apparent lack of support” in the Legislature, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press. The measures, sponsored by Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, and Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, respectively, were introduced prior to the FCC’s Feb. 26 decision upholding a petition by the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga to vacate state restrictions on municipal broadband.

Supporters of the FCC’s position are frustrated at the Tennessee Legislature’s move to push back state legislation on the matter until 2016. Christopher Mitchell, director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, told Government Technology he’s “dismayed” at the development.

“Even after the FCC created an official record documenting all the benefits of allowing Tennessee [municipal networks] to expand and demonstrating that the AT&T arguments were hollow, the Tennessee General Assembly continues to limit Internet investment in the state,” Mitchell said.

Government Technology reached out to Brooks and Bowling to expand on the issue, but wasn’t able to connect with them by press time.

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery filed a lawsuit on March 20, challenging the FCC’s ruling and calling into question states’ rights. The cable industry is concerned that municipalities are over-extending their reach and could hamper job creation in the private sector.

Mitchell said he believes, however, that there’s “no good argument” for why Tennessee municipal networks should not be allowed to expand where they provide Internet connectivity. He added that “the only explanation” for the state legislation getting tabled was lobbying pressure from AT&T and Comcast, and thinks Tennessee needs to overhaul its campaign finance rules to avoid undue influence from the telecom giants.

Government Technology emailed AT&T Spokesman Daniel Hayes seeking further comment on muni-broadband expansion in Tennessee and the company’s stance on the matter, but didn't receive a reply.

If the bills are re-introduced next year, Mitchell doesn’t want the language altered. He explained that adding any conditions for expansion would not give people or businesses “real choice” in broadband providers.

“It would create an unnecessary gap between those with access to modern technology and those who are stuck with crummy AT&T DSL simply because too many legislators were unwilling to vote against the biggest lobbyist in Nashville,” Mitchell said.

Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.