By Chris Butler | Tennessee Watchdog
NASHVILLE — Ten Republican members of Tennessee’s General Assembly believe having broadband Internet is important as having electricity.
They’re supporting a bill that would allow public utilities that offer cable and Internet to expand into rural areas, despite criticism from tea partiers and at least one private Internet provider.
David Snyder, who operates a private ISP in Chattanooga, calls the legislation “an assault on free enterprise.”
Mark West, president of the Chattanooga Tea Party, meanwhile, told Tennessee Watchdog these Republicans have forgotten their roots.
According to the bill, introduced by state Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, established Government Owned Networks would expand into rural areas for the sake of job creation and economic development.
“This is actually about private corporations versus the people,” Bowling told Tennessee Watchdog on Friday.
“In today’s world, people need these services in order to survive, much less thrive. It has become the electricity of the 21st century to have adequate broadband access.”
Unlike other GON’s, such as the one in her hometown that competes against private businesses, these would only reach into rural areas where private Internet service providers aren’t operating, Bowling said.
“It’s not taxpayer-funded. It is subscriber funded. Those involved would have to create a business plan that they would have to present to the comptroller, who would determine if it was a sustainable, reasonable business plan.”
“These areas shouldn’t be condemned to a slow death because there are no options available,” she said, adding she and Snyder have discussed the issue.
Snyder, however, said this is a case of big government taking over part of the Tennessee economy. Snyder also said government officials will build these new networks with tax and electric-rate-backed bonds.
“This legislation impacts the entire state,” Snyder said.
“There are small service providers across the state deploying broadband who will not invest in areas where the government has launched business ventures that invade the free market.”
West, meanwhile, posed the following question:
“Where is it in our Constitution that says we have to expand broadband service to every corner of the state?”
Certain Republicans, West said, campaign by spouting principles of limited government, which, in reality, they don’t believe in.
“Yet, when they get down to where the rubber meets the road their professed values don’t align with some of the legislation that they will sponsor, support and vote for. This is a prime example,” West said.
Bowling responded to these complaints by once again comparing Internet to the necessities of life.
“I think those people are all glad they have public water, electricity, public sewage, and that’s the government. I don’t think that’s an overreach,” Bowling said.
“The government should provide those things that the people can’t provide for themselves and that the market is not providing for them.”
“Imagine if, in 1935, the powers that be said Nashville should have electricity but the surrounding rural communities should only have kerosene and coal, and that ought to be adequate enough,” Bowling said.
“This is not build it and they will come. This is build it in order to live.”
Another Republican co-sponsor, Steve Sutherland of Morristown, told Tennessee Watchdog that no high-tech industries will move to a rural area without available fiber optic technology.
Another Republican co-sponsor, Jack Johnson of Brentwood, said, in the modern world, everyone needs broadband.
As Tennessee Watchdog reported, Bowling’s hometown of Tullahoma has a public utility that, in contrast to what she is proposing, already competes against private providers.
The service, under the Tullahoma Utilities Board, is called LightTUBe. It serves 18,000 residents in one of the smallest cities in the nation.
In fact, city officials now offer an ultra-high speed Internet service, known as Gigabit, that costs $300 a month.
According to an audit state comptrollers released last year, the city’s Gigabit Internet has thus far lost $2.1 million. City officials told auditors their Gigabit Internet would operate at a loss its first three years.
TUB General Manager Brian Skelton, who refused to speak to Tennessee Watchdog about this matter in May, has publicly stated hopes to expand the city’s fiber services outside city lines, something state law now prohibits.
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