Rural mayor: Feds should leave government-owned Internet decision to states

By Chris Butler | Tennessee Watchdog

NASHVILLE — One mayor whose county stands to benefit from the federal government overruling a Tennessee law limiting the growth of government-owned Internet networks says the feds may be overreaching.

Bradley County Mayor Gary Davis told Tennessee Watchdog this is a matter best left to state officials to resolve.

Those words might pit Davis against many who say the state has no business interfering in what they call a local matter.

Gary Davis

As Tennessee Watchdog reported, the Chattanooga Electric Power Board has petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to overrule state laws that restrict government-owned networks from selling Internet service beyond municipal boundaries.

EPB competes in the city with private providers such as Comcast. The public utility offers ultra high-speed Internet through a smart grid, for which taxpayers paid $111 million via federal stimulus money.

Various leaders in Chattanooga want to extend their broadband EPB service to rural areas, citing how it will help bring jobs and other economic development to those areas.

Davis said he supports people in the rural areas of his county getting broadband in some fashion, even if it’s outside the private market through EPB — but with reservations.

“Right off the cuff, this is something that should be handled at the state level,” Davis said.

The two primary providers in the county, Davis said, are AT&T and Charter, and AT&T at the very least provides dial-up Internet to most areas, even the rural ones.

Davis admits these rural areas of Bradley County don’t have much in the way of businesses, but said the county’s population is increasing.

“There are more people in the county now than there were 10 years ago,” he said. “We are definitely growing.”

The CEO of a Jackson-based Internet service provider told Tennessee Watchdog earlier this month that free market solutions will soon avail themselves to people who live in rural areas, likely through the same wireless technology people already use on their smart phones.

Davis said people driving through the rural areas in his county have no problem getting an Internet signal on their smart phones.

As previously reported, the House of Representatives passed an amendment by U.S. Rep. Marshal Blackburn, R-Brentwood, that would prohibit the FCC from trumping Tennessee law. The U.S. Senate hasn’t acted on it yet.

Marsha Blackburn

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, who represents Chattanooga, was one of four Republicans who voted against Blackburn’s amendment. The Washington Post quoted Fleischmann as saying Tennessee’s law goes against the will of his constituents.

EPB spokeswoman Danna Bailey, meanwhile, said local communities should have the right to determine the best way to access their critical infrastructure needs.

Contact Christopher Butler at chris@tennesseewatchdog.org

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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