Battle for broadband takes No. 10 spot for 2016

  • 0
  • December 22, 2016

Top 10 Newsmakers No. 10
Posted Tuesday, December 20, 2016 11:01 am
Read the Original on Cleveland Daily Banner

By BRIAN GRAVES Banner Staff Writer
“There are constituents in my district that have waited 20 years [for broadband access],” state Rep. Dan Howell said in February. “What if you had to wait 20 years to get electricity even when they had it next door? That’s what broadband is today.”

The issue that has been a multiyear struggle in improving access to high-speed broadband service for Bradley County has been chosen as the No. 10 story of 2016 by the editors and staff writers of the Cleveland Daily Banner.

An early 2015 ruling by the Federal Communications Commission pre-empted state laws that prevent local utilities from offering the services to an adjoining county.

In response to the FCC move, the state of Tennessee went to court, saying the agency overstepped its bounds.

That put the breaks on any expansion into Bradley County by EPB Chattanooga.

2016 started with Cleveland Utilities beginning a feasibility study on offering the service through its system.

Some Bradley County residents traveled to Washington, D.C., and were able to meet with FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

“For about 30 to 45 minutes, we were just meeting people from different organizations that have been working to make sure people understand what is going on,” said Bradley Countian Eva Van Hook.

“There were actually four of us. There were two of us from Bradley County, and two were from North Carolina. The four of us went upstairs, and that’s where we met (FCC Chair) Tom Wheeler and his team that had been working on this. He spoke to each of us individually. … He said, ‘Thank you for putting a face to this issue.’”

In March, EPB said a change in state law would be the fastest way to expand its fiber-optic availability; however, the bill that would have allowed EBP to service Bradley County died in a state House committee.

Its fate was sealed for in that session after the House Business and Utilities subcommittee rejected a proposal from state Rep. Kevin Brooks to amend the bill, making it into a pilot program.

“We may have lost this battle, but we will, in the end, win this war,” the representative declared after the vote. “Every Tennessee family and Tennessee resident deserves access to true broadband in Tennessee. That was not what happened today.”

One day after the General Assembly failed to pass a bill which would have allowed EPB of Chattanooga to provide the service to the Cleveland/Bradley County area, the issue became a legal one for courts to decide.

It is in the courts where Tennessee, along with neighboring North Carolina, is arguing the ruling of the FCC would essentially pre-empt state laws and therefore violates states’ rights.

On March 17, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court heard oral arguments on whether the FCC can lawfully pre-empt parts of laws in North Carolina and Tennessee that govern how, and where, municipal broadband networks may operate.

Howell, Brooks and state Sen. Todd Gardenhire said in July that the battle for service — especially for those in rural areas — would continue.

The Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development on July 21 released a study it commissioned to assess the current state of broadband access in Tennessee, and options for increasing access and utilization.

According to the study, 13 percent of Tennesseans, or 834,545 people, do not have access to broadband at the federal standard of 25 megabytes per second of download speed and 3 megabytes per second of upload speed.

AT&T announced in August it is bringing its 100 percent fiber network to areas of Bradley County. However, the two state legislators who have spearheaded efforts for broadband expansion essentially say they’ll believe it when they see it.

The issue reappeared locally when county residents addressed the Bradley County Commission.

Christopher Bivens lives within three-tenths of a mile of Paul Huff Parkway and said he can see the Fresh n’ Low building from his front porch.

He noted all the businesses in that plaza have Charter Business internet service.

“Charter wants $1,100 to run cable 500 feet to my house,” Bivens said. “To say I am frustrated is an understatement.”

Gloria Hayes said her area has much the same problem as Bivens’ does, and gave Howell a petition signed by more than 50 people with ties to Bradley County encouraging better broadband access.

“I agree with those who say the answer is to open up competition in Tennessee,” Howell said. “Of course, at the same time [the goal includes] making sure those that are in the existing business currently are not damaged financially. But, there are ways to do that and we’re exploring that now.

“I had the governor’s policy director want to meet with me last week,” Howell said. “We spent nearly 45 minutes talking about this. I am expecting we will come back with some kind of legislation.”

Howell said after winning re-election in November the issue would be his priority again when the state Legislature reconvenes in January.

“I’m discovering more and more the lack of competition has a suppressing effect on small business,” Howell said. “They’re being choked financially because of the lack of competition and the outrageous prices they are being forced to pay for the type of broadband they need.”