Tennessee Looks At Expanding Municipal Broadband


CivSource has steadily reported on the attack on municipal broadband networks underway at the state level for the past two years. Given the diversity of states that have considered and in many cases passed bills that would limit municipal broadband, it is hard to discount the idea that blocking these networks is a coordinated effort by large telecom companies and their supporters. But there are a few bright spots on the horizon, one of them being the Tennessee statehouse which is currently considering four bills that would expand the options for municipal networks.

The bills have bipartisan support and go directly at efforts to stymie municipal broadband in Tennessee. The bills are consistent with efforts already underway at the municipal level in the state most notably Chattanooga’s high profile municipal gigabit internet access. That network has successfully powered individuals and economic development with backing from stakeholders at the municipal level through the statehouse.

Chattanooga was the prime mover on gigabit municipal broadband and has effectively disrupted the conversation for other municipalities nationwide. Other cities have “visceral jealousy,” says Susan Crawford, a visiting professor of intellectual property at Harvard Law School in a recent interview with WGBH Boston. “And it’s disrupting what has otherwise been a very smooth, unbroken, complacent approach to communications in America.”

It seems as though Tennessee wants to continue leading the conversation with these bills. Two of the bills are focused on specific localities – one focuses on Clarksville, Tennessee’s fifth largest city and another would enable Trousdale County to contract with a rural electric cooperative to provide broadband services. These bills are necessary given how the state regulates municipal ability to provide telecommunications services. The other two bills deal with state level policy, making it easier for municipalities to operate their own networks and work with electric utilities that have dark fiber networks to offer telecom services.

Ever since a 2004 Supreme Court ruling gave states the power to regulate municipal telecommunications offerings, advocates for municipal broadband have been working to expand state allowances, while those who are against such networks have been pushing a coordinated effort to tighten language, funding and build out,  making it nearly impossible to get these networks off the ground. Indeed, big providers like Comcast sued to stop the Chattanooga network. They’ve also mounted similar efforts against Google Fiber which provides municipal broadband and recently announced plans to offer the low-cost, high-speed service to 34 additional municipalities. The big shops have already lowered prices in areas near Google Fiber cities, and not surprisingly, would like to avoid doing that for others.

Some cities are also trying to push back against their state’s anti-municipal broadband laws. The Montrose City Council, in Montrose, Colorado voted to make their city a gigabyte city despite a 2005 law passed in the Colorado legislature banning such networks. Councilor Kathy Ellis cited Chattanooga specifically in her comments on the vote to The Watch – to wit: “On April first, voters in Montrose will have an opportunity to become a gigabyte city, with the promise that every business and premise in the city will have the broadband capacity of Chattanooga (Tenn.).” As written, the Montrose measure would not cost taxpayers to build the network.

Full text of the Tennessee Bills: