EPB says public demand will help change muni broadband laws

EPB says that while it is still limited by Tennessee law to selling 1 Gbps FTTH service within its defined borders, the municipal fiber provider for Chattanooga is confident that growing demand for higher speed broadband could drive a change to current legislation. 

Despite the legal barrier, the service provider continues to get requests from nearby towns to get their broadband service.

At the same time, local incumbent telcos like AT&T have not made any moves to upgrade their facilities to offer faster speeds that consumers want.

“We have a defined electric power footprint and the state of Tennessee only allows us to offer internet service within that defined electric power footprint and our answer has always been no,” said Danna Bailey, VP of corporate communications for EPB, during an event at its company headquarters in Chattanooga. “We’d like to serve you because Tennessee law prohibits it and it’s become a statewide issue as we hear more stories in not-always rural parts of the state who have access to little or no broadband at all.”

There was a glimmer of hope earlier this year when the FCC voted to preempt state laws in North Carolina and Tennessee governing municipally-run broadband companies.

The FCC’s order permitted communities choose whether or not to build their own networks based on their own missions and the ability to expand services to nearby communities. Municipal broadband has been a major focus of FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. In May, Wheeler started to explore how the commission could preempt over 19 state laws that prevent or discourage municipalities from building their own broadband networks.

However, the municipal broadband movement was struck a major blow in August when the FCC’s effort to preempt state laws in North Carolina and Tennessee that restrict municipal broadband network reach was overturned by a Sixth Circuit panel.

In its ruling, the court said that the FCC’s application of Section 706 of the 1996 Telecom Act is not enough to overturn state law, adding that there’s no federal statute or FCC regulation that “requires the municipalities to expand or otherwise to act in contravention of the preempted state statutory provisions."

EPB and other municipalities that want to establish their own broadband networks aren’t giving up.  

The service provider has begun working with six other communities in Tennessee that have built out similar FTTH networks. As part of that work, the communities have continued to petition the state general assembly to get the law changed, but no progress has been made.

“We haven’t been successful in working with the Tennessee general assembly to get this law changed,” Bailey said. “I expect that will come up again on the docket this winter when general assembly goes back into session.”

EPB and the other communities continue to hear about more voters telling them stories about how students have to drive to a local restaurant to use Wi-Fi to complete homework assignments.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel calls the lack of affordable broadband for students the “homework gap.”   

“What we’re hearing every year is more and more constituents who are raising their hands saying I am driving my child to McDonalds to do his homework or I can’t sell my house because I don’t have broadband so it’s becoming a real issue,” Bailey said. “When we first went into the market, people did not realize how much of an issue broadband has become but it is there.”

Since EPB and other municipal providers lack the lobbying dollars of the large telcos and cable operators, Bailey says that change will come from the local community members.

“We don’t have the deep pockets that Comcast and AT&T have,” Bailey said. “I suspect when this law changes it will be because the voters are insistent upon it and the lobby will do its best to keep it where it is.”

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