Latest Updates On Broadband Availabiliy

David Seal, Jefferson County, Tennessee Commissioner

David Seal, Jefferson County, Tennessee Commissioner

David Seal is a guest editorialist this week on The Post. David is a long time educator in Jefferson County, as well as a recognized artist and local businessman. He also serves Jefferson County as a County Commissioner and as a lobbyist for the people on issues such as eminent domain and broadband accessibility on the state level. Thanks to David for his contribution to this week’s news.

Broadband service in Tennessee is governed by a complex set of laws, most of which were enacted in 1999, long before internet service became a necessary utility for daily life and business. Students and their parents frequent fast food and hotel parking lots at night to reach internet signals in order to complete homework assignments, a very frustrating ordeal for the forty percent of rural Tennesseans with nonexistent or inadequate internet service. Health clinics, law offices, and machine shops that are located away from high speed internet struggle to send and receive data for images, documents, and technical diagrams. In short, without high speed internet, business and education are at a great disadvantage.

To combat this problem, a handful of state lawmakers have tried for years to remove the regulatory barriers that hold back internet progress in our state. Acting under the provisions of the Telecommunications Act of 1999, certain municipal electric utilities got into the business of broadband, offering their electric customers high speed internet at reasonable prices. Currently, nine municipals in Tennessee are retailing broadband, none with transmission speed greater than EPB in Chattanooga. 10 gigabits per second is reported to be the fastest internet service on earth; and Tennessee State Senator Janice Bowling (R) of Tullahoma would like to make this form of competitively priced high speed service available to the rest of the state using the Chattanooga model. She and other legislators have proposed bills that would remove regulatory barriers to permit “municipals” to provide broadband “outside” their historic service boundaries. Proponents of this free-market legislation point to solid evidence that would suggest the retail price of broadband would become highly competitive across Tennessee if municipals were permitted to retail outside of their current boundaries. Opponents are mainly the legacy carriers that wish to suppress competition from public utilities. They use a legion of lobbyist with checkbooks and expense accounts to convince state legislators in Nashville to maintain the status quo to preserve their profits and limit broadband expansion, all at the expense of frustrated consumers.

This legislative session may be a little different. Senator Bowling has some new life, and new legislators, in the fight for her proposed broadband legislation. Representative Terri Lynn Weaver (R) of Lancaster has sponsored House Bill 1410, a companion bill to the Bowling Senate Bill, SB1045. Co-sponsoring HB1410 are Representatives Jeremy Faison (R) of Cosby and Representative Andrew Farmer (R) of Sevierville, both representing districts that cover Jefferson County. Senator Frank Niceley (R) of Strawberry Plains is a new co-sponsor of SB1045, also representing Jefferson County. Along with the new support from the Jefferson County state legislative delegation is a set of resolutions, one each from the Jefferson County School Board, Jefferson County Commission, and the City of Dandridge, all of which endorse, and call for passage of, Senate Bill 1045. Add to the mix of support, County Commissioner David Seal and broadband activist Joe Malgeri have just completed a series of town hall meetings to educate citizens and to encourage passage of the Bowling/Weaver bills. Numerous broadband action groups have formed across Tennessee, including the Jefferson County Broadband Action Group.

New broadband legislation was enacted during the last session of the Tennessee General Assembly, commonly known as the Broadband Accessibility Act [of 2017] which established tax incentives and a grant program for utilities and private companies to conduct broadband expansion, and to authorize cooperative utilities to provide broadband service within and without their service areas. Governor Haslam touted the act as a way for the private sector to bring internet to underserved rural areas. Opponents of the act consider it to be a waste of 45 million dollars of taxpayer money, citing the Bowling proposal as a more effective approach, with no cost to state taxpayers. Many consider the Broadband Accessibility Act as a smokescreen of regulations to limit competition, and a regulatory trap to keep internet capable municipal utilities within their boundaries. Appalachian Electric Cooperative (AEC) applied for a grant under the act; but failed to qualify, in part, because a full business model has yet to be adopted by the utility board of directors. Appalachian Electric Cooperative General Manager Greg Williams stated that it is the goal of AEC to provide access to broadband to all of its members once a business model is chosen. The AEC board is considering options for broadband service that may include a single third-party retailer, external to the provisions of the Broadband Accessibility Act. Mr. Williams is optimistic that a broadband grant from the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development can be secured in the next round of applications. AEC is neutral in its position on Senate Bill 1045 relative to deregulating municipal utilities for broadband expansion, but supports proposed bills that clarify the authority of cooperative utilities to use existing easements for broadband expansion.

Source: David Seal, Jefferson County Tennessee Commissioner