Muni broadband debate heats up in Tennessee, because it can

8 February 2016 by Steve Blum
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Something you don’t see in Washington.

All or nothing federal policies are great when you’re getting it all, but when the political winds shift and you end up with nothing, it’s not so wonderful. That’s why I think the Federal Communications Commission’s preemption of state restrictions on municipal broadband is a bad idea: its current more is better policy will only last as long as three commissioners agree with it, but its authority to regulate muni broadband will live forever. Assuming, of course, that a federal appeals court ends up ruling in the FCC’s favor, which is far from a foregone conclusion.

The case in question involves, among other things, a Tennessee law that prevents a municipal Internet service provider from expanding beyond its city limits. And it’s now the target of a bill introduced in the Tennessee legislature, that’s drawing the usual fire from incumbents, according to a story in the Chattanooga Times Free Press

“We’re talking about AT&T,” Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, bluntly told a rally of business owners, families and local officials gathered in the state Capitol. “They’re the most powerful lobbying organization in this state by far.”

The bill has been opposed for years by AT&T, Comcast and other providers who say it’s unfair for them to have to compete with government entities like EPB. But EPB, as well as some lawmakers like Gardenhire, say if the free market isn’t providing the service, someone else should.

“Don’t fall for the argument that this is a free market versus government battle,” Gardenhire said. “It is not. AT&T is the villain here, and so are the other people and cable.”

State legislatures can bend to the will of deep pocketed lobbyists, but they also have to ultimately answer to voters. Muni broadband advocates have a fighting chance at winning support and changing minds, as we’re seeing now in Tennessee. That’s better odds than you get at the FCC, where public input is limited, for all practical purposes, to lobbyists and lawyers with deep pockets, and where rules are written, debated and finalised behind closed doors, with no opportunity for public review.