State Senator Presses for Broadband Deregulation to Benefit Consumers, Advance Internet Expansion

State Senator Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma) continues to advance proposed legislation aimed at making broadband service more available to rural citizens and to create market competition among internet service providers (ISP’s). Her proposals would define broadband at or above the FCC standard, streamline the franchise certification process for ISP’s under certain circumstances, permit authorization for multiple joint ventures between private businesses, cooperative electric utilities, counties, and internet capable municipal utilities. Another feature of her proposed legislation would permit municipal utilities and cooperatives to provide broadband service beyond their electrical distribution area. Multiple county and municipal resolutions support her legislation. Conversely, existing ISP’s that enjoy state protection from increased competition are pushing back.

Critics of existing telecommunications policy cite the protectionist nature of state laws that favor well-entrenched ISP’s. Such policy would include the Broadband Accessibility Act of 2017 (PC228), a measure that provides $45 million in taxpayer funded grants, tax incentives to ISP’s, and funding to utilities that promise to expand 10 Mb/s or greater internet service to “underserved areas”. The act does little to provide relief from regulations that were enacted in 1999, and does not authorize cooperatives, municipalities, counties, and the private sector to engage in collaborative business enterprises that would expand service and lower the cost of broadband services to consumers.

Interviewed for this news article, Senator Bowling stated that her proposed legislation would go on-notice for a hearing if the General Assembly reconvenes June 1, 2020.

My legislation simply would repeal the state restriction on Municipal providers of Fiber to the Premise . Municipal providers (ratepayers) would be allowed to collaborate, cooperate , contract with or partner with electric coops, private sector or Telephone coops to provide fiber to the premise. The logical partnership would be with electric coops. They would not overbuild any existing fiber to the premise provider.”

Some cooperative utilities in Tennessee are using taxpayer funded broadband grants to install fiber optic infrastructure, in turn, leasing the fiber to an exclusive third party provider to retail internet service to their cooperative members. This arrangement does not trigger certain provisions of the Broadband Accessibility Act that would encourage competition, leaving many rural internet consumers with only one choice for internet service.

Tennessee is no stranger to protectionism. Last year, the United States Supreme Court affirmed a decision by the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association v. Russell, ruling that Tennessee’s residency requirement for retail liquor licensure violated the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, citing protectionism in its 57 page opinion. More recently in context to the Coronavirus emergency, the Beacon Center of Tennessee pointed to state requirements for Certificate of Need for medical facilities, essentially protecting existing medical business from competition by limiting the number of hospital beds in the state.

Currently, the legislature is in recess because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Source: Submitted by David Seal David is a long time educator in Jefferson County, as well as a recognized artist and local businessman. He has also served Jefferson County as a County Commissioner and is a lobbyist for the people on issues such as eminent domain and broadband accessibility on the state level.