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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 Chattagnooga, 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.”

Community Broadband Media Roundup - Week of August 29, 2014

"When private industry does not answer the call because of market failures or other obstacles, it is appropriate and even commendable, for the people acting through their local governments to improve their lives by investing in their own future."

~ John McCain, 2005

Wait. What? Brendan Sasso from The National Journal brought up some excellent points this week-- some things we’ve been pondering for a good long while.

Why would so many republican lawmakers who claim to value self-determination and self-rule deny citizens the right to take on Big Telecom? Why would Republicans who rally for smaller government and healthy competition turn around and argue that the State should step in and bar citizens from having their basic broadband needs met?

That quote from Sen. John McCain was spoken when McCain and a bipartisan group of senators (Republicans John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Norm Coleman and Democrats Frank Lautenberg, John Kerry, and Russ Feingold) introduced a bill to block states from restricting local governments' ability to provide publicly run and funded Internet service. It can be explained pretty simply, According to Sasso: 

“President Obama has taken a position on the issue this time around. That’s why 11 Republican senators are “deeply troubled” that the FCC would "force taxpayer funded competition against private broadband providers."

Municipal Broadband got a shot in the arm this week from the Center for Public Integrity as well. Allan Holmes wrote extensively about how Big Telecom spends millions of dollars in litigation, advertising and lobbying “instead of investing in improving infrastructure in these communities.” 

“On a scale of 1 to 10 on who is the most powerful lobbying presence in Tennessee, AT&T is a 12,” said a long-time lobbyist in Nashville who asked not to be identified so he could speak candidly about lobbying in the state. “They are the big horse in the race, and they are unstoppable.”

AT&T and its president of Tennessee operations Joelle Phillips didn’t respond to CPI emails asking for comment, but Alex Wilhelm of TechCrunch definitely added his own thoughts. He outlines some of his concerns:  

“Increasing competition is good. Helping bring more American citizens onto the Internet at high speeds is good. And it is especially good to bring quick digital access to the world’s information to rural areas that are not currently served by private enterprise. As such, there is a place for municipal broadband in America.

More broadly, if citizens want to come together and build a service for themselves using monies that they elect to raise, they should be able to. I struggle to understand how that idea is controversial.”

The initial comments period for the Time Warner merger plan came to an end Friday. Before it closed, ILSR and 64 other reform groups made their voices heard. Value Walk staff reprinted our comments, the basis of the argument is this:

“The merger would give Comcast too much control over the future of the Internet and communications infrastructure and undermine the diversity of ownership and content in media.” 

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves…

Center for Public Integrity Covers Big Telecom Attacks on Munis

The Center for Public Integrity recently published an excellent article worth sharing. In "How big telecom smothers city-run broadband," Allan Holmes describes the money-for-infleunce machine at the state level, connects the dollars, and reveals bedfellows. The article is part of a series investigating the political power of big cable and telecom companies.

If you are a regular at MuniNetworks.org or any other news source covering telecommunications, you are familiar with the renewed push to restore local telecommunications authority that began in January of this year. Holmes provides a little background on the court case that inspired FCC Chairman Wheeler to publicly state that the agency is serious about restoring local authority.

Since those developments, an increasing number of journalists have reported on how we came to have barriers to municipal networks in some 20 states. The revived interest has further revealed that state legislatures are big benefactors of campaign contributions from cable and telecom leaders. "Think tanks" aimed at protecting industry giants and conservative millionaires prove to be at the heart of this payola. Holmes does an excellent job of simplifying the web of political influen$e that dooms millions of people to dial-up, outdated DSL, and aging cable infrastructure.

Holmes follows the story of Janice Bowling, a state senator from Tennessee representing the district that is home to LightTUBe in Tullahoma. When she introduced a bill to allow LightTUBe to expand to serve surrounding communities, she did so because:

…I believe in capitalism and the free market. But when they won’t come in, then Tennesseans have an obligation to do it themselves.

When it appeared the bill might get some traction:

That’s when Joelle Phillips, president of AT&T’s Tennessee operations, leaned toward her across the table in a conference room next to the House caucus leader’s office and said tersely, “Well, I’d hate for this to end up in litigation,” Bowling recalls.

Holmes delves into the Herculean efforts by incumbents to quash municipal network projects in other communities, such as Lafayette, Louisiana. Millions of dollars have been spent on lobbying and lawsuits instead of upgrades to improve services or connect more potential customers.

For the next three years, Lafayette spent $4 million responding to three lawsuits and subsequent appeals from BellSouth, which AT&T bought in 2006, and Cox.

The article addresses the fact that better connectivity leads to better economic development. This is only one of many stories from Tullahoma:

Agisent Technologies Inc., which provides online records management for police departments and city jails, moved to Tullahoma in 2011 because it needed a fast reliable broadband network that had a backup if the connection failed, said David Lufty, the company’s president.

Charter and AT&T couldn’t offer redundancy, but LightTUBe could.

“Since we’ve been here, we haven’t had more than five minutes of downtime in almost three years,” Lufty said.

Holmes compares Tullahoma, where job growth outpaces the state average, to Fayetteville, North Carolina. Fayetteville, struggles to beat down unemployment. All the while existing fiber resources that could be used for local business and residents sits untapped due to a 2011 state law. When a Fayetteville Senator tried to exempt his community through legislative process, he was personally attacked in the Chambers. Fayetteville did not get its exemption.

For Steven Blanchard, chief executive of Fayetteville’s Public Works Commission, prohibiting Fayetteville residents from using the fiber network that’s already there doesn’t make sense.

“Why shouldn’t we be allowed to sell fiber if it runs by everyone’s house?” Blanchard said. “They are already paying for the fiber to be there, so why not allow them use it for telephone and Internet and capture back a lot of the cost they put in to have it there?”

The article offers some powerful graphics comparing services, state laws, and political influence dollars.

A must read! Don't miss it!

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.

Rural Utilities Building Broadband Networks - Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode 109

If you have doubts that we can or will connect rural America with high quality Internet connections, listen to our show today. Alyssa Clemsen-Roberts, the Industry Affairs Manager at the Utilities Telecom Council, joins me to talk about how utilities are investing in the Internet connections that their communities need.

Many of these utilities are providing great connections, meaning that some of the folks living in rural America have better -- faster and more affordable -- Internet access than residents of San Francisco and New York City.

We discuss the demand for better Internet access and the incredible take rates resulting from investment in some of the communities that rural electric cooperatives are serving.

UTC has a been a strong ally of our efforts to prevent states from revoking local authority to build community networks. Within UTC, the Rural Broadband Council is an independent operating unit.

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 17 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."

Media Roundup: Blackburn Amendment Lights Up Newswires

Rep Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and her love for large corporate ISPs was all over the telecommunications media this week. She attempted to kneecap the FCC as it explores options to restore local telecommunications authority to communities. Blackburn introduced an amendment attacking local options as the House took up general appropriations bill H.R. 5016.

The amendment passed 223-200, primarily along party lines, with most Republican Reps voting with Blackburn and all but two Democrats opposing the amendment.

Democrats voting to support the amendment included Georgia's 12th District's John Barrow and Jim Matheson from Utah's 4th District. If either of these gentlemen represent you, take a moment to call their offices and point out their voting mistake.

Republicans that voted No were Mike Rogers and Mo Brooks from Alabama's 3rd and 5th Districts. Charles Boustany from the 3rd District in Louisiana and Chuck Fleischmann from the 3rd District in Tennessee (includes Chattanooga) also opposed the restriction. If these elected officials represent you, please take a moment to contact them and thank them for breaking ranks to support local authority.

Coverage this week was fast and furious.

Sam Gustin from Motherboard reported on Blackburn's efforts. Gustin checked in with Chris:

"Blackburn's positions line up very well with the cable and telephone companies that give a lot of money to her campaigns," said Mitchell. "In this case, Blackburn is doing what it takes to benefit the cable and telephone companies rather than the United States, which needs more choices, faster speeds, and lower prices."

Mitchell says that he's sympathetic to the arguments against "preemption"—after all, he works for an organization called the Institute for Local Self-Reliance—but points out that while Blackburn opposes the federal government inserting itself into state law, she apparently has no problem with the states telling cities and municipalities what they can and cannot do.

"The argument that Blackburn puts forth is not coherent," Mitchell said. "It's just politics."

Gustin and the International Business Times were only a few of the many reporters that connected the dots between Blackburn's campaign balance sheet and her concern for big ISPs. From IBT:

Blackburn’s top campaign donors include private telecommunications firms that do not want to have to compete with publicly owned ISPs. Her state is home to EPB, a taxpayer-owned power company in Chattanooga that also provides local residents some of the fastest Internet speeds in the world at market-competitive rates. EPB is now aiming to expand its services beyond Chattanooga.

However, to go forward with its expansion plan, EPB needs the FCC to enter the fray, applying its authority to preempt a Tennessee law backed by the private telecom industry that restricts the utility’s ability to move into new regions.

According to campaign finance data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, two of Blackburn’s largest career donors are employees and PACs affiliated with AT&T (NYSE:T)  ($66,750) and Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) ($36,600). Those are two of EPB’s private-sector competitors in Chattanooga. Blackburn has also taken $56,000 from the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the lobby for the big telecoms.

Ars Technica's Jon Brodkin also notes that EPB has turned away local communities that repeatedly request help in areas where broadband is not available. Tennessee law prevents EPB from serving beyond its electric service area. As Brodkin reports, Blackburn is not willing to look beyond the State Capitols.

EFF Logo

Brian Fung, who offered our community networks map for his Washington Post article, delved into the history of the issue. He noted growing support in D.C. for local telecommunications authority. Multichannel News also reported on the opposition to the amendment voiced on the House Floor by New York Representative Jose Serrano. Serrano said:
Whatever happened to localism or local control? This amendment means the Federal Government will tell every local citizen, mayor, and county council member that they may not act in their own best interests. Any such amendment is an attack on the rights of individual citizens speaking through their local leaders to determine if their broadband needs are being met.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote about consumer concerns - the lack of competition and state policy that maintains large corporate monopolies and duopolies:
Projects like community mesh networks and mayors’ attempts to bring fiber to their cities should never be illegal or stifled by misguided state laws. On the contrary, they should be encouraged. That’s because community and municipal high-speed Internet projects provide users more options.
Municipal and community broadband projects offer alternatives, so when companies like Comcast and Verizon are behaving badly, users have somewhere else to go. But right now there are 20 states that have laws that make it make it hard or impossible for communities to take their Internet into their own hands.
The National Journal also published a brief account.
Karl Bode at DSLReports.com summed up the legislative formula that brings us to this point in political time:
The underlying argument from Blackburn and friends continues to be that municipal broadband is the devil -- but letting local massive corporations write state telecom laws (laws that often completely eliminate your right to choose for yourself what your town does or doesn't do, while also resulting in less competition, higher prices, and worse customer service) is perfectly ok.
And my snarky favorite came from Brad Reed, who offered a little sarcasm at BGR.com with "Congresswoman bravely stands up for ISPs’ rights to deliver inferior service with no competition":
Either way, we’re still glad to see that some patriots in this day and age are still standing up to protect our freedoms from the municipal broadband menace. As certain historical figure might have said were she alive today, “Let them eat dial-up!”