Broadband Access Issues in Tennessee

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Scott Puckett (my son) representing students at UT, with me and Alex William, owner of Technology Concierge.

Broadband access provides citizens crucial informational resources and affords access to necessary educational and business opportunities we’ve all come to expect in the 21st century. Randy Boyd, Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development commented, “Tennessee’s economic future is directly tied to our broadband access…[It] impacts our quality of life, educational opportunities, health care and our businesses’ ability to compete.”

The fact that Tennessee’s economic and educational future is tied to its ability to provide citizens broadband access is not surprising. What may be surprising is the number of issues affecting who receives broadband access, and at what cost. Our community is in an unusual situation because two federal government agencies have jurisdiction over this issue. The origin for this dual oversight dates back to the establishment of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and the Federal Communication Commission (FCC).

Historical Background

In 1933, a Congressional charter was enacted to create the Tennessee Valley Authority, a federally owned corporation. Its purpose was to serve as a regional economic development agency. Their main focus was to provide navigation, control floods, generate electricity and encourage economic development for the Tennessee Valley. Currently the TVA’s service area covers and regulates the electricity in most of Tennessee, portions of Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.

In 1934 the Federal Communications Commission was established to replace the Federal Radio Commission. As communications expanded and television became more prominent, the FCC’s duties were expanded to include regulating all forms of communication throughout the United States. The FCC helps to regulate content, awards station charters and monitors innovation to make sure all forms of communication can co-exist.

Regulatory Issues

Under the current modernization of the FCC, they regulate broadband, the advanced communications systems capable of providing high-speed transmission of services such as data, voice and video over the Internet and other networks. The FCC states in their strategic plan, “All Americans should have affordable access to robust and reliable broadband products and services,” and they mandated a roll out of faster broadband in support of their strategy. In support of this effort, the FCC regulates pole attachment fees, which are fees paid by private telecom companies to attach to existing poles owned and operated by utility providers thought out the country.

Herein lie the unique broadband dilemma regions regulated by the TVA face. The TVA regulates our electricity and the electric companies own most of the poles. The FCC regulates broadband, the distribution of which is dependent on attachment to the poles.

The TVA, although federally owned, has taken a laissez-faire approach to pole attachment fees and allows its regions to self-regulate. For example, in our community, Nashville Electric Service (NES) regulates the rates and process for broadband suppliers such as Google, to attach to the utility poles. As a result of this control, broadband competitors find it difficult to bring new service to the Nashville area, where rates are significantly higher than in other parts of the country. In addition, private companies believe government owned municipalities, such as EPB, Chattanooga’s Electric provider, one of seven such utilities in Tennessee that offer telecommunication services, maintain an unfair advantage over private companies due to their preferential tax status. Since they do not pay corporate income taxes, they have the ability to issue debt at lower rates, as explained by

Another complicating factor is a state law that limits electric companies to providing broadband service to their designated footprint. Legislation, delayed last year, would remove the requirement that utilities keep their broadband within the “footprint” of their electric service. The Times Free Press reported,Deb Socia, executive director of Next Century Cities, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that supports the expansion of municipal broadband, said too many communities in Tennessee… lack high-speed broadband” as a result. Municipal authorities cannot fill the void due to current state law, which does not allow it them to operate outside of their designated footprint.

Local utility companies ignore the FCC regulation because the federal government regulates electricity for the Tennessee Valley area via TVA. As noted, Tennessee is relatively unique because both the state and the federal government regulate telecommunications.

This sets up a challenging scenario, where the state winds up fighting for the right to self-regulate in an atmosphere where it technically answers to itself and the federal government.

One of the TVA’s founding missions was to ensure the rural south had access to electricity when providers were dis-incentivized to provide it to everyone. In 1982, the federal government mandated the breakup of “Ma Bell,” which led to an increase of competition in the long distance market by companies including Sprint and MCI. The issues surrounding broadband are no different than these historical challenges that the advancement of technology have brought about.

While legislation is at a standstill and the debate continues, education and economic prosperity suffer. Enhancing our schools’ science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) curriculums rely on access to affordable broadband. Today’s students require computer based learning. Without broadband access, Tennessee will be further behind the education power curve. If we are going to continue to be an attractive destination for businesses, the broadband market in Tennessee must remain competitive with the rest of the county.

Awareness in the Business Community

Yesterday, the Nashville Technology Council hosted a panel discussion to spur conversation and raise awareness about this crucial, hot button legislative broadband blog image 2topic: expanding broadband service in the state. Alex Curtis moderated. Panelists included: Dr. Cliff Lippard, Deputy Executive Director, Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR); Andy Macke, Vice President of Government & Community Affairs, Comcast Corporation; The Honorable Representative Jason Powell, D-Nashville; Carolyn Ridley, Senior Director of State Public Policy, Level 3 Communications and Nick Thompson, Customer Engineering, Nashville Electric Service.

This was the first topic in a series of technology related discussions impacting our community over the course of the year leading up to the next state legislative session.

Become a member of the NTC, and you’ll have a partner to keep you aware of legislative issues on topics that affect our technology community.

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