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Local Businesses Suffer in Tennessee as State Prevents Chattanooga Expansion

As our readers know, the FCC is currently considering petitions submitted by Chattanooga and Wilson, North Carolina. Both communities want the ability to expand their ability to offer advanced telecommunications services, contrary to existing state anti-muni laws. As we glance through the comments, we notice that ISPs, advocacy groups, and local governments are not the only commenters with a vested interest in the outcome. 

There are also compelling stories from individuals, local businesses, and organizations that are looking for better options. In some cases they have one provider but are unhappy with the service so support municipal network expansion. In other cases, they have dial-up (or no service at all) and are maddeningly close to an EPB or Greenlight connection but state restrictions forbid service to them.

We recently spoke with Joyce Coltrin, owner of J & J Nursery located on the edge of Cleveland, Tennessee, in Bradley County. She is about 32 miles from the heart of Chattanooga but only 3/8 mile from the edge of the EPB fiber optic service area. Her only choice for Internet at her nursery is AT&T dial-up. Joyce tells us:

"I could walk right to it - it is the closest provider and we don't have any broadband access!"

Joyce submitted comments early in the proceedings. She choose to send her comments via snail mail because her email is so unreliable.

For the past 15 years, Joyce and other people in her community have requested better service from AT&T. They were told repeatedly it would be 3 months, 6 months, 9 months until they would get upgrades but it never happened. They finally decided to look for connectivity elsewhere. Joyce and her neighbors approached their electric provider, Volunteer Energy Cooperative, in the hopes that they could work with EPB to bring services to the area. Volunteer and EPB had already discussed the possibility, but when the state law was passed that prevented EPB from expanding, the efforts to collaborate cooled.

Joyce uses her cell phone to access the Internet while she is at work. Like some of the other business owners in Cleveland, Joyce pays $200 - $300 per month because she is constantly running over data caps to conduct business. There are others who live or work in areas near her that do not have cell phone coverage.

Another local business owner that runs a poultry business almost lost a large number of chicks when their alarm system, dependent on wireless Internet access through a Verizon "MiFi" personal hotspot, failed during cold weather.

Joyce does not plan on expanding to an online store but she finds it difficult to adhere to state business regulations without better connectivity. For instance, she must do business taxes online from home, where she has a little better Internet access.

She knows that Tennessee's anti-muni laws came from giant cable and telco lobbying efforts. She also recognizes the negative impact it is having on Cleveland. In her comments to the FCC, Joyce writes:

College students drive to McDonald's to use Wi-Fi and work from their cars to do homework and projects. This situation is choking business and making our children third class citizens.

I have always been for free enterprise, but when some businesses win due to unfair protection, free enterprise dies.

To read the rest of Joyce's comments, visit the FCC website.

Local Tennessee Communities Rally Behind EPB

As the FCC contemplates the fate of the Chattanooga EPB's ability to expand to surrounding communities, some of those Tennessee communities are publicly announcing their support. The Town of Kimball and Marion County, both part of the Chattanooga metro area, have passed resolutions asking state legislators to reconsider Tennessee's anti-muni law.

The Times Free Press reports that Kimball's Board of Mayor and Alderman unanimously and officially asked their state officials to introduce legislation enabling local authority. They requested action as early as the next legisaltive session.

Marion County passed a similar resolution in August - also unanimously. According to Kimball's City Attorney Bill Gouger:

"It is a situation where there are providers out there who would like to extend fiber-optic cable and high-speed Internet-type systems throughout our county," Gouger said. "The simple fact is, right now, our state laws make that really difficult to do, if not impossible."

County Mayor David Jackson is reaching out to the other municipalities in Marion County to increase support. From the article:

High-speed Internet access is "very important" for the entire county, said Jackson.

"It would, hopefully, give us another edge in getting new industry and other businesses to our county," he said. "It [quality Internet access] is very vital. We've got some industries now that are really struggling because they have limited Internet access."

Gouger said commercial and industrial developments are making high-speed Internet access a "requirement" for setting up shop in rural areas like Marion now.

"If we can't get those types of things throughout our county, it's going to disqualify us from some future growth," he said. "That's the whole purpose of this resolution."

ILSR Submits Comments to FCC in Support of Restoring Local Authority

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance recently submitted comments on FCC petitions filed by Wilson, North Carolina and Chattanooga, Tennessee. We have been following the proceedings that may prove to be the tipping point in the movement to regain local telecommunications authority.

Our organization collaborated with eight other groups and two D.C. Council Members to provide detailed comments for the Commission's consideration. Our group supplied examples of the benefits munis bring to local communities. In addition to providing connectivity where the incumbents fail to meet demand, our comments point out that municipal networks encourage private investment. We provide concrete evidence of both.

With our partners, we also addressed the fact that state restrictions like the ones in North Carolina and Tennessee are not needed. Local communities must go through a rigorous, transparent process everywhere before investing. State legislative barriers are the product of intense lobbying from the cable and telecommunications giants.

As we point out to the Commission, municipal networks are an important tool to bring ubiquitous Internet access to the U.S.:

The FCC is tasked with ensuring high speed access is expanded to all Americans on a reasonable basis and to remove barriers to broadband deployment. Local governments have proved to be an important tool in expanding access to high speed Internet access. Both Chattanooga and Wilson have neighbors that publicly want the local municipal network to expand access to them. Both Chattanooga and Wilson are prepared to invest in connecting their neighbors. Restoring authority to local governments, so they may decide for themselves if a municipal investment or partnership is an appropriate way to expand high speed Internet access, will result in a more rapid deployment of high speed Internet access.

We also filed comments alone to provide the FCC a small sample of the support people and organizations have shared with us. Even before the comment period, we heard from local governments and organizations that passed resolutions in favor of local authority, members of the business community that support local authority, and media outlets that endorse local decision making.

From our closing comments:

ILSR stands with local businesses, residents, media outlets, and many others in encouraging the FCC to grant this petition, restoring the capacity of local governments to invest in next generation Internet access or partner to the same effect, if they so choose. We have worked with communities across the nation and recognize that this is not a partisan issue at the local level. It is about jobs, education, and quality of life. Restoring the right of communities to invest in fiber networks will result in faster deployment of fast, affordable, and reliable Internet networks.

The Guardian Visits Chattanooga

The Guardian recently ran an article covering Chattanooga EPB's fiber network. The article tells the story of the birth of the network, the challenges the community faced to get its gigabit service, and how the network has sculpted the community.

Reporter Dominic Rushe, mentioned how the city has faced legal opposition from incumbents that sued to stop the network. They continue to hound the EPB today, most recently by trying to stop the city's FCC petition to expand its services. But even in a fiercely competitive environment, EPB has succeeded. From the article:

The competitive disadvantage they face is clear. EPB now has about 60,000 residential and 4,500 business customers out of a potential 160,000 homes and businesses. Comcast hasn’t upgraded its network but it has gone on the offensive, offering cutthroat introductory offers and gift cards for people who switch back. “They have been worthy competitors,” said [Danna] Bailey,[vice president of EPB]. “They’ve been very aggressive.”

Rushe spoke with Chris:

"In DC there is often an attitude that the only way to solve our problems is to hand them over to big business. Chattanooga is a reminder that the best solutions are often local and work out better than handing over control to Comcast or AT&T to do whatever they want with us,” said Chris Mitchell, director of community broadband networks at advocacy group the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

A key difference between a Comcast or an AT&T and EPB goes beyond the numbers. Rushe described the artistic renaissance happening in Chattanooga with the help of top notch service from EPB:

The city is making sure schools have access to devices for its children to get online. Fancy Rhino, a marketing and film production firm backed by Lamp Post, has been working with The Howard School, an inner-city school, to include them in the city’s renaissance.

...

Bailey said EPB could afford to be more community minded because of its structure. “We don’t have to worry about stockholders, our customers are our stockholders. We don’t have to worry about big salaries, about dividends. We get to wake up everyday and think about what, within business reason, is good for this community,” she said.

“The private sector doesn’t have that same motivation. It’s perfectly fair, they are motivated by profits and stockholders. they have a lot of capital already invested in existing infrastructure. It would be costly to overbuild themselves.”

The local business environment is, naturally, shifting toward a high tech center. Rushe checked in with one of the many incubators, Lamp Post, in the once abandoned downtown district:

“We’re not Silicon Valley. No one will ever replicate that,” says Allan Davis, one of Lamp Post’s partners. “But we don’t need to be and not everyone wants that. The expense, the hassle. You don’t need to be there to create great technology. You can do it here.”

Mayor Andy Berke addressed the community's drive to offer gig service:

Berke said they had no choice. “The Gig wasn’t coming here anytime soon without us doing it,” he said. “It was going to go a lot of places before it came to Chattanooga. For us, like a lot of cities, you either decide to do it yourself or you wait in line. We chose to do it ourselves.”

Media Roundup: Week of August 8

This week’s rumblings on municipal broadband held more reverberations from last week's announcement that the FCC would take up formal proceedings regarding Chattanooga, TN and Wilson, NC petitions. The message for preempting state laws is being amplified, first Business Insider wrote this piece on How “Gig City” Chattanooga is putting Big Cable on the ropes:

"Ultimately what it comes down to is these cable companies hate competition," said Chris Mitchell, the director of community broadband networks for the Institute for Local Self Reliance.

As director, Mitchell watches over issues like municipal networks, net neutrality, and the consolidation of cable companies, advocating for the public. "It's not about [cable's] arguments so much as their ability to lobby very well," he said.

And you know you’re making an impact when the Redditers jump on the train (or the choo choo? sorry…) Chattanooga mayor Andy Berke and EPB CEO Harold DePriest participated in a Reddit AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) online discussion, which got Front Page billing: 

Q: What would you say to the people that believe it’s unfair for private companies to compete with a public utility?

A: It is unfair - they have way more money than we do.

We believe that this is critical infrastructure for our community to thrive and grow. Many people might consider things like roads as critical infrastructure, but we include this as one of those things.

If the private sector won’t bring it to local communities, local communities should have the right to build it for themselves.

And here, the mayor talks about the familial relationship the companies had with city leaders before they built their network: 

Q: When establishing it, what were your interactions like with comcast, time warner, etc.? Did they try to stop it from happening? If so, how?

A: There were two main interactions. Our last mayor asked big telecom if they would bring gigabit to Chattanooga - and they said NO.

Lawsuits followed.

We won.

Then, as if on cue, CenturyLink responded with their typical weak claims that “they’re getting to it,” and similar “the check’s in the mail, we swear” type announcements. First in SeattleDenver, and then in Our Fair Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul). The giant claimed that soon, if not already, residents could be seeing 1 Gig speeds just like Chattanooga. But when we looked into it, CenturyLink’s site appeared to have no specifics or even potential locations where the fairy-Gigmother might eventually be working. 

“Who gets CenturyLink's new gigabit-per-second service, and when, depends on a number of factors, the company cautioned. Fiber to homes requires the existence of nearby fiber infrastructure, and for now this is present only in parts of the Twin Cities.” 

Rest assured, we’ll believe it when we see it.

And, finally this week Gizmodo adds in it’s 10 cents. The online tech magazine touted community broadband as an answer to net neutrality fears:

"But guess what: we don't have to rely entirely on the FCC to fix the problems with high-speed internet access. Around the country, local communities are taking charge of their own destiny, and supporting community fiber.

Unfortunately, those communities face a number of barriers, from simple bureaucracy to state laws that impede a community's ability to make its own decisions about how to improve its Internet access.

We need to break those barriers. Community fiber, done right, should be a crucial part of the future of the Internet.

Huntsville Considers a Network Investment, as Its Businesses Consider Chattanooga

We reported back in June on Huntsville, Alabama's decision to undertake feasibility study to evaluate its options for increasing next generation fiber optic internet access throughout the city. AL.com is now reporting that Huntsville Utilities hopes to hear the results of the study within 90 days, allowing it to decide whether it will take steps to expand its minimal existing fiber infrastructure and offer connections to businesses and the public. 

The sense of urgency in Huntsville is not surprising, given that it sits just South of the Tennessee border and a less than 100 miles from Chattanooga, the Gig City. News coverage in Huntsville on the possibilities of a future municipal fiber network make constant reference to Chattanooga's example, including this list of valuable lessons Huntsville can learn from its neighbor.

The scenario Huntsville fears is laid out in another AL.com article, featuring the story of Matt Barron, a young tech entrepruener who moved his startup from Huntsville to Chattanooga this summer. Barron describes the attraction of a city with a commitment to next generation infrastructure, above and beyond the advantages of speed:

 "I want to live in the sort of city that puts a high-speed Internet in," Barron said. "It might have nothing to do with the bandwidth. It has everything to do with the community and the people, the people that stand behind what is basically a human right, right now."

Barron sees the Internet as fundamental. People "can't even apply for a job without bandwidth," he said, and "you have the right to free speech, but speech happens largely on the Internet these days. So, it's a human right."

Chattanooga is forward-thinking enough "to even think about putting a high-speed Internet in," Barron said. "Those are the people I want to be around."

It should be noted that Barron gave those quotes at the annual GIGTank event in Chattanooga, a conference designed to help startups and web-based firms, while surrounded by like-minded entrepreneurs and investors eager to capitalize on Chattanooga's network.

Huntsville itself has a history of being a tech- and innovation-friendly environment, having served as the home of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center since 1960. Marshall is a rocketry and spacecraft propulsion research facility, and played a crucial role in the Saturn, Apollo, and Space Shuttle programs. With a community full of rocket scientists, doing the math on a municipal network for Huntsville shouldn't be too hard.  

Understanding the Wilson and Chattanooga FCC Petitions - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 110

Given the exciting development of the FCC opening comment on petitions from Wilson, NC and Chattanooga, TN to restore local authority to their states, Lisa and I decided to take over this week's podcast of Community Broadband Bits.

We talk about the petitions, some background, and interview Will Aycock from Wilson's Greenlight Gigabit Network and Danna Bailey from Chattanooga's EPB Fiber network.

We finish with some instructions on how you can comment on the record. The Coalition for Local Internet Choice also has commenting instructions and some sample comments.

Read a transcript of this show, episode 110, courtesy of Jeff Hoel.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 22 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Waylon Thornton for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bronco Romp."

Community Network Media Roundup: Week of August 1

The effort to restore local authority in deciding whether or not to build a municipal fiber network is full speed ahead.

On Monday, the FCC responded to petitions from Chattanooga, TN and Wilson, NC by opening up formal proceedings on the matter, and requesting people weigh in on the issue. Reporters from the Washington Post to GovTech covered the story.

Starting off this week’s Media roundup, we hear from Carl Weinschenk with IT Business Edge. He stated what we’ve all been thinking (and saying) for a while now:

“The fight over the right of municipalities to build their own networks seems like such a no-brainer that it takes some digging to even figure out why opposition to the idea exists.”

The Switch’s Brian Fung helped do that digging, and wrote an excellent piece on how the municipalization of electricity in the late-19th century fits into the discussion, and how that history can help to build a case for community networks. 

“[In 1933] Roosevelt launched the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and the Rural Electrification Administration... ‘TVA went in with the notion of, 'Let's make power cheap enough that the average person can afford it, and let's make money by selling on volume — not on massive margins," said Harold DePriest, chief executive of the public electric utility in Chattanooga, Tenn. "That worked for TVA. And at the time, it forced the private power companies to reduce the rates.’"

GovTech’s article, while it questions whether municipal networks are the answer, raises a powerful point: If ISP’s were getting the job done, cities wouldn’t have to come in and set up networks. 

“EPB officials [in Chattanooga] say the FCC is required by Congress to remove barriers to Internet accessibility. The point of EPB’s petition is to remind the FCC of that and solicit the agency’s help in changing current state law.

EPB Fiber Logo

Joyce Coltrine, for one, is on board... She says Internet providers have snubbed her and her neighbors for years. She says broadband is not available in her slice of the county… Coltrine told commissioners that Internet hot spots and 4G data packages are too expensive and spotty to rely on for dependable connections. Her frustrations were affirmed by an “Amen” from the crowd and other murmurs of agreement.”

After months of discussion and a blog post that stated Chairman Wheeler’s support of a community’s right to fair and open competition, The consumerist’s Chris Morran put it bluntly: “Put Up or Shut Up”.

Lightreading took up the topic from more than one angle. Carol Wilson wants to know: 

“... waiting for incumbents to get around to upgrading aging copper networks in many areas seems a strategy already doomed to failure. These companies exist to make money, and if they could have done that building gigabit networks in smaller cities and towns, it would have happened by now. So if not a muni-backed network, then what?”

Jason Meyers talked to Teresa Mastrangelo, who founded BroadbandTrends LLC. She also has noticed a disturbing (but not surprising) trend in who gets connected and who’s left out in the cold: 

"...Clearly these members of Congress have a lot of funding coming to them from big players," she says. "The Communications Act is actually preventing people from participating in the digital age in these cases. In un-served and under-served markets, there should be exceptions to this rule."

The FCC anticipated that communities would step forward to ask them to overturn the state limits. Ars Technica’s Jon Brodkin makes clear that the petition is focused on the specific communities that filed the petition: 

“These petitions will be handled on a case-by-case basis, so don't expect the FCC to make a single declaration that preempts all state laws inhibiting municipal broadband. ‘The FCC has the authority to take broader action through rulemakings—but that is not what is happening here,’ an FCC spokesperson said.”

The public comment period for the Chattanooga and Wilson petitions ends August 29. the Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC) has posted instructions on how you can have your voice heard.

Chattanooga and Wilson Comment Period Open; Tell the FCC You Support Local Authority

Last week, the communities of Chattanooga and Wilson, North Carolina, filed petitions with the FCC. Both communities requested that the agency remove state barriers preventing expansion beyond their current service areas. On July 28, the FCC established a public comment calendar for the request. It is imperative that all those with an interest in better access take a few moments to express their support for these two communities.

Opening Comments are due August 29, 2014; Reply Comments will be due September 29, 2014. That means you need to submit comments by the end of this month. If you want to reply to any comments, you can do that in September.

This is a pivotal moment in telecommunications policy. For months municipal network advocates have been following Chairman Wheeler's stated intentions to remove state barriers to local authority. Within the past few weeks, federal legislators - many that rely on campaign contributions from large providers - pushed back through Rep Marsha Blackburn (R-TN). Blackburn introduced an amendment to a House appropriations bill preventing FCC preemption if the amendment becomes law.

ILSR and MuniNetworks.org encourage individuals, organizations, and entities to file comments supporting the people of Wilson and Chattanooga. These two communities exemplify the potential success of local Internet choice. We have documented their many victories on MuniNetworks.org and through case studies on Wilson [PDF] and Chattanooga [PDF].

Now is the time to share your support for local decision-making. This is not about whether any given community should build its own network so much as it is about whether every community can decide for itself how to best expand and improve Internet access, whether by investing in itself or working with a trusted partner.

ILSR will be filing comments in support of Wilson's and Chattanooga's petitions. As a service to those who plan to express their support for local authority, we will continue to provide information, guidance, and resources throughout the comment period. In the near future, there should be a guide to help you submit comments. But if you are really enthusiastic or already know the process, here are some links.

File comments electronically for Wilson's petition at Proceeding 14-115; Chattanooga's petition is Proceeding 14-116. Petitions and exhibits are available at the filings pages or at the links below.

Chattanooga Will Ask FCC to Preempt State Barriers in Tennessee

Since January, when the DC Circuit Court of Appeals suggested the FCC has the authority to preempt state anti-muni laws, local communities have publicly supported the notion. Chattanooga's Electric Power Board (EPB) will join those communities when it petitions the FCC to preempt similar laws in Tennessee, reports The Center for Public Integrity.

Danna Bailey, vice president of corporate communication at EPB recently told The Center:

“We continue to receive requests for broadband service from nearby communities to serve them,” Bailey said. “We believe cities and counties should have the right to choose the infrastructure they need to support their economies.”

Chattanooga, one of the publicly owned networks that have inspired FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, has proved itself as a strong economic development tool. According to the article:

A day after his meeting with Berke, Wheeler wrote in his blog, “I believe that it is in the best interests of consumers and competition that the FCC exercises its power to pre-empt state laws that ban or restrict competition from community broadband. Given the opportunity, we will do so.”

A number of other communities with municipal networks, or in the process of deploying them, have passed Resolutions that support the FCC:

In addition to communities with firsthand experience, the American Public Power Association (APPA) also passed a Resolution in June, urging Congress, the FCC, and the Obama Administration to unequivocally support:

…the ability of local governments, including public power utilities, to provide advanced communications services that meet essential community needs and promote economic development and regional and global competitiveness. 

The U.S. Conference of Mayors passed a similar Resolution at its annual meeting in June, which read:

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the US Conference of Mayors recommends that the FCC preempt state barriers to municipal broadband service as a significant limitation to competition in the provision of Internet access.

Soon after, a coalition from the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA), the National League of Cities (NLC), and the National Association of Counties (NACo) joined together for a letter of support to Chairman Wheeler:

The importance of Internet choice at the local level has never been more important. In many places in the U.S, locally-driven projects—including innovative partnerships with private sector companies—have demonstrated that local creativity and local authority is a viable means by which new next-generation broadband infrastructure can emerge.

Fortunately, support is also coming from DC. In late June, a collection of Senate and House Members penned a letter to Chairman Wheeler, asking him to take action and begin the process. In a statement fully supported by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, the Members wrote:

Communities are often best suited to decide for themselves if they want to invest in their own infrastructure and to choose the approach that will work best for them. In fact, it was the intent behind the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to eliminate barriers to entry into the broadband market and promote competition in order to stimulate more innovation and consumer choice. We urge you and your colleagues to utilize the full arsenal of tools Congress has enacted to promote competitive broadband service to ensure America’s communities obtain a 21st century infrastructure to succeed in today’s fiercely competitive global economy.

Local communities, regional coalitions, and federal leadership all recognize the importance of local Internet choice. The country is ready for the next step, Chairman Wheeler. We support you!