By the end of the year, thousands of more locations in Tennessee will have access to broadband internet.
Emily West, USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee
Scrapping this restriction and allowing successful networks to expand would connect more people to broadband, all without the state spending a dollar.
- Deb Socia is the executive director of Next Century Cities.
Recently, Tennessee made a smart investment in its digital future when the state awarded $14.8 million in funding to local broadband projects. This funding is a welcome recognition that local networks are really good at connecting Tennesseans to high-quality, reliable, affordable internet access. But Tennessee can do more. The state could expand next-generation internet access to an even greater number of households without spending a dollar by allowing municipal fiber optic networks to expand to areas that want their service.
Cooperatives and municipalities have long track records of building the infrastructure that local economies depend upon and are uniquely positioned to serve communities that have historically been left behind by the big cable and telephone companies. The state recognized this in 2017 with the passage of the Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act, which allowed electric co-ops to offer broadband across the state.
Deb Socia (Photo: Submitted)
Tennessee is also home to some of the most successful municipal fiber networks in the country. Morristown’s gigabit network, built with zero taxpayer dollars, lowered broadband bills across the community while attracting several new businesses and hundreds of new jobs. Chattanooga’s EPB network has generated more than $1 billion in economic activity and more than 3,000 jobs. The majority of households in the region have chosen EBP as their internet provider, in part because it has not raised prices since it launched in 2009. Last year, Consumer Reports called it the best internet in the country.
The success doesn’t stop there. From Jackson to Bristol and many places in between, municipalities have built next-generation networks that bring myriad public good and lightning-fast fiber connections to communities. Tennessee has been a hotbed for creative local solutions in communities that have been neglected by incumbent providers. State law, however, has prevented municipal networks from serving nearby residents and businesses that desperately want their services.
Despite the widespread success of municipal networks, the state restricts who they can serve. While Tennessee law allows cities and towns to offer broadband if they have a municipal electric utility, the networks are not permitted to expand service beyond their electric footprint. This law prevents networks from offering high-quality, affordable service to neighboring communities that want and need broadband and stifles collaborative, regional development. Scrapping this restriction and allowing successful networks to expand would connect more people to broadband, all without the state spending a dollar. Municipal networks could expand the same way they got started: Selling bonds to private investors who would be repaid from the revenues created from the network.
In a state with more than half a million people still without access to wired broadband, it’s imperative that every resource and opportunity is capitalized. Municipal broadband expansion would allow for significant fiber expansion driven by private investors, not taxpayers. It’s time for Tennessee to make it happen.
Deb Socia is the executive director of Next Century Cities.
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