Tennessee Restricts Municipal ISP Growth — Sides Telecom Giants

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From TechDirt:

We’ve noted a few times that Tennessee is one of numerous states that have literally let incumbent ISPs like AT&T and Comcast write state telecom law. Most notably, around 20 states have now blocked towns and cities from building their own broadband networks — or striking public/private partnerships — even in cases where the market has clearly failed. It’s protectionism pure and simple, and when the FCC voted last year to try and gut these laws in Tennessee and North Carolina, ISP allies in Congress were quick to assail the FCC for “violating states rights” (to let incumbent ISPs dictate all telecom policy, apparently).

Tennessee’s law prevents a popular Chattanooga-based utility-run ISP, EPB, from expanding its up to 10 Gbps offerings. Tennessee Rep. Kevin Brooks recently tried to pass a bill that would have dismantled the state’s restriction, but his effort ran face-first into a lobbying wall constructed by companies like AT&T and Comcast. He then recently tried to strip down the measure so it simply let EPB expand near its headquarters and to one neighboring county, but that provision was also shot down 5-3, with one of the nay votes being that of Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, a former AT&T executive.

Incumbent ISPs like AT&T and Comcast, meanwhile, continue to insist that nothing is wrong with the scattered, expensive broadband service they’re currently providing

Needless to say, Brooks isn’t particularly impressed with state lawmakers who continue to let AT&T and Comcast dictate state telecom policy while the state becomes one of the least connected in the nation thanks to cronyism:

“Residents and business people alike in northern Hamilton and portions of Bradley counties say they either have no service, lousy service or wireless service that makes it very expensive to upload and download documents for work and school. Asked who was lobbying against the bill, Brooks said, “the list of who was not would be shorter. I heard they hired 27 lawyers to fight.”

…Brooks, R-Cleveland, and other proponents later blasted powerful investor-owned telecommunication providers such as AT&T and Comcast for the loss. And conceding defeat this year, they vowed to return in 2017. “It’s a testament to the power of lobbying against this bill and not listening to our electorate…the voice of the people today was not heard. And that’s unfortunate.”

Incumbent ISPs like AT&T and Comcast, meanwhile, continue to insist that nothing is wrong with the scattered, expensive broadband service they’re currently providing the state. And, as we’ve seen in other states like Missouri, they continue to frame the issue as a partisan one to intentionally sow partisan division, distracting locals from what’s actually happening. But again, there’s bi-partisan support for leaving the right to improve local infrastructure in the hands of local voters, and not incumbent providers with a vested interest in keeping prices high and mediocrity the norm. And towns and cities wouldn’t be exploring getting into the broadband business if they were genuinely satisfied with the current offerings.

For a while broadband efforts from the likes of Google Fiber and Tucows had been shining a spotlight on the need for public/private partnerships to fill in the broadband coverage gaps incumbents refuse to address. But recent votes in Missouri and Tennessee show that old telecom habits (like letting ISPs write awful protectionist law in exchange for campaign contributions) die hard.