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Tennessee Lawmakers Plan Push to Extend Muni-Broadband Boundaries

Sponsors of the legislation argue that by extending broadband to rural parts of the state, they will help bring those citizens into the 21st century.

by Tim Omarzu, Chattanooga Times/Free Press, Tenn. / October 8, 2015
Tennessee Statehouse in Nashville Flickr/Christopher "Rice"

(TNS) -- At first they didn't succeed, but two Cleveland, Tenn.-area lawmakers will try, try again to change state law so EPB and other municipal utilities can expand the boundaries of their high-speed Internet service to reach rural areas that don't have broadband.

Tennessee state Reps. Dan Howell and Kevin Brooks, both Cleveland Republicans, reiterated their support Tuesday night to tweak state law to expand the reach of public utilities' broadband to reach unincorporated community of McDonald near Bendabout Farm. The lawmakers joined with a national group working to expand municipal broadband, Next Century Cities, during an evening meeting that drew about 85 people to the Heritage Fellowship Church of God on Lee Highway in McDonald.

The proposed legislation would strike a few words from state law, Howell said, and remove the requirement that utilities keep their broadband within the "footprint" of their electric service. If that happened, EPB could extend its gigabit fiber optic service into areas it now can't serve, such as McDonald.

"EPB could service 1,000 people in that part of rural Bradley within 90 days," Howell said. "These are people who do not currently have anything but dial-up."

The proposed legislation got pulled last year by its sponsors when it looked like it might die. Howell thinks it will do better in the next session of the Tennessee Assembly, which gets underway in January.

"Last year, we got farther than we have ever been," he said.

Deb Socia, executive director of Next Century Cities, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that supports the expansion of municipal broadband, said too many communities in Tennessee are like McDonald and still lack high-speed broadband and municipal utilities could help fill that void, when requested.

"You have communities that can provide broadband to their neighbors, but state law doesn't allow it," she said. "If you want Tennessee to be a global player, you want everybody to have access."

EPB is one of seven municipal utilities in Tennessee that offer telecommunication services.

Private phone and cable companies like AT&T and Comcast, which compete with EPB, claim municipal utilities have an unfair advantage because they don't pay corporate income taxes and can issue debt at lower rates because of the implied backing of government taxpayers.

Also opposed to extending municipal broadband service in Tennessee is the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a Nashville-based nonprofit that says it favors free market solutions to government programs in Tennessee.

When government gets involved in providing broadband, "the question becomes how are they going to pay for it and how much is it going to cost the taxpayers?" said Justin Owen president and CEO of the Beacon Center.

"There are other solutions. You can get satellite Internet," said Owen, who said that governments that invest in technology could be left behind by a disruptive innovation.

©2015 the Chattanooga Times/Free Press (Chattanooga, Tenn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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