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Tennessee Leaders Call on the FCC to Axe State Broadband Restrictions

Representatives from state and local government, along with private-sector leaders, rallied on Tuesday in support of a petition to the FCC to vacate state laws that prevent expansion of gigabit Internet connections.

Without gigabit connectivity, small towns will suffer economic hardships in the coming years, according to elected officials speaking at a rally on high-speed broadband expansion on Tuesday, Nov. 18, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

State representatives, mayors and private-sector leaders all gathered in “Gig City” to support recent petitions to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that would vacate state restrictions on community broadband operations in Tennessee and North Carolina. The pundits stressed that rural areas with limited or no access to broadband will be unable to develop, attract and retain bright young minds and new businesses unless cities are free to operate publicly owned networks.

Tennessee Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, called the Internet “the essential utility of the 21st century,” adding that Tennessee’s restriction on expanding Chattanooga’s gigabit network needs to be lifted.

“What needs to [happen] is removing the restriction of the electronic footprint, so anybody who wants to provide accessible, high-speed broadband will not be encumbered by unnecessary regulations,” Bowling said.

The Electric Power Board of Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C., filed petitions with the FCC earlier this year asking it to vacate state laws that are preventing cities from providing and expanding communications services. The filings are in response to years of the cable industry lobbying state lawmakers to enact barriers to municipal networks under the premise that local governments have a competitive advantage under established state regulations.

While the FCC hasn’t indicated that it will take up the petitions, the issue has become widespread throughout the U.S. Nineteen states currently have legislative barriers that discourage or prevent municipal broadband networks, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, an organization that advocates for equitable community development.

Also at the hearing, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke expressed pride at how a city he couldn’t wait to leave in the 1980s has now become what he feels is the “greatest mid-size city in America,” thanks to the foresight of city leaders to build a smart grid with fiber optics extended to every home and business.

Berke noted, however, that increased connectivity beyond Chattanooga’s borders will be necessary to further develop the area’s economic future.

“Our connections provide markets for us to export our products to and to talk with people to improve our communities,” he said. “We believe our petition in front of the FCC is truly an important next step for us as we grow our high-speed network.”

Other speakers at the event included Beth Jones, executive director of the Southeast Tennessee Development District and Jeremy Pietzold, city council president of Sandy, Ore., another community providing a gigabit Internet connection.

Hollywood, Calif., was also represented at the gathering by the presence of Jonathan Taplin, director of the Annenberg Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California. Taplin rose to fame as a producer, doing concert production work with Bob Dylan before moving on to film production in the 1970s. Notably, he produced the critically acclaimed Martin Scorsese film, Mean Streets.

Taplin used those experiences to express how high-speed broadband has enabled the power of education, technology and media to flourish. He pointed out that it doesn’t cost more to go from 250 mbps download speeds to 1 gbps – there’s no scarcity of bandwidth.

But as cable providers have been slower to roll out high-speed connections and leave some areas with slower speeds or limited access, Taplin said he felt innovation was being stifled at a time when it should be embraced. He noted that film director James Cameron (Terminator, Avatar) wants to shoot movies in 8K resolution. In order to view that resolution on the Internet, a home would need at least a 500 mbps download rate – doable in Chattanooga, but not realistic in most other cities without gigabit connections.

Taplin said he supports competition, but thinks the big providers only act when pushed by a startup, such as offering higher connectivity speeds when Google moves into one of their cities. He called the Tennessee state law that restricts expansion of publicly owned networks a “monopoly protection act,” and “crony capitalism.”

“Our reading of the power of the FCC and the 1996 Telecommunications Act is that they have the right to pre-empt these laws that prevent cities from having choice and I’m hoping they do something about this,” Taplin said. “If they don’t and we have a bunch of monopolies and there’s no innovation, we won’t get to the future that’s [already in] Chattanooga.”

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines from 2011 to mid-2015.