When cable and telecom companies go through the effort of writing anti-consumer legislation for states, they can later be counted on to lobby to keep those laws in place when challenged. Case in point: Lobbyists for Comcast and AT&T recently helped kill a small piece of legislation in Tennessee that would have allowed a city-run utility to expand the reach of its broadband service.
Tennessee — one of around 20 states with laws that heavily restrict the availability of community-owned broadband — allows city-owned electric utilities to provide broadband services, but only within that utility’s electric service area. So if a neighboring community wants to pay for access to this service but is not within the electric service footprint, it can’t.
State representative Kevin Brooks recently introduced legislation [PDF] originally intended to revise these state regulations to allow utilities to allow muni broadband providers to expand beyond their existing utility area into communities that want the service.
But, reports the Times Free Press, the pushback from lobbyists for Comcast and AT&T — both of whom have recently launched gigabit broadband efforts in the state — was so harsh that even when Brooks tried to introduce an amendment that would only allow a single test demonstration program, it still couldn’t get the approval of the state house’s Business and Utilities Subcommittee.
Here’s a chilling image from the Times Free Press report:
“On Tuesday at the state Capitol in Nashville, a platoon of lobbyists and executives, including AT&T Tennessee President Joelle Phillips, were present in the House hearing room or watching on a video screen as Brooks presented the bill and the amendment.”
Additionally, one of the five committee members — Patsy Hazlewood — who voted against Brooks’ amendment is a retired AT&T executive. No potential conflict of interest there.
“It’s a testament to the power of lobbying against this bill and not listening to our electorate,” said Brooks, whose original bill was not even put up for a vote by the subcommittee. He and others who support muni broadband have vowed to try again to push through appropriate legislation.
However, that may not be needed, depending on the outcome of an issue pending in federal appeals court.
Last year, Chattanooga’s city-run EPB utility — which can provide data speeds of up to ten times that of Google Fiber to some customers — successfully petitioned the FCC to overturn Tennessee’s restrictive laws, but the state has petitioned the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to strike down the FCC order, claiming the agency overstepped its authority. Oral arguments in that matter are slated for tomorrow.
Technically speaking, the FCC order is still in effect, meaning EPB and other muni broadband providers could expand to communities outside their electric service footprint. But it makes more sense for the utilities to await the outcome of the state’s appeal before they begin sinking time and resources into building out their networks.