A Digital Desert: The Internet Debate Pits Local Communities Against Broadband Giants

Optical fibers(Image: Optical fibers via Shutterstock)Internet service with modern connection speeds is not available in much of Bradley County, Tennessee. Some parts have no internet service at all. But local advocates and lawmakers are pushing the FCC to intervene on their behalf – against major broadband companies and their lobbyists.

Joyce Coltrin runs a wholesale nursery about 10 miles from the outskirts of Chattanooga, Tennessee, in rural Bradley County. She relies on her iPhone at work because there is no internet connection at the nursery.

“A lot of the college students go to do their homework at McDonald’s,” Coltrin told Truthout. “Imagine your child at McDonald’s, in the parking lot, in the dark, running the car so he can see the videos he needs for class.”

Bradley County is a digital desert on the edge of an internet oasis. Internet service with modern connection speeds is not available in much of the area, and some parts of Bradley County have no internet service at all. Less than half a mile down the road from Coltrin’s nursery, however, is the end of a fiber optic cable that supplies internet connections with speeds up to 200 times the national average.

The fiber optic line was installed by EPB, Chattanooga’s local nonprofit electric utility, which in 2010 became the first company in the United States to offer one-gigabit-per-second internet speeds for its entire service area. For about $70 a month, businesses and residents in Chattanooga can enjoy some of the fastest internet available anywhere in the country.

Chattanooga now bills itself as “gig city,” and its effort to “re-pioneer the internet” is fueling an economic and technological renaissance. EPB’s hyper-fast fiber optic infrastructure has incubated high-tech startups and attracted companies that would typically be more at home in Silicon Valley. The city that was once considered “the dirtiest town in America” now boasts the title “best town ever.”

Residents and businesses in neighboring Bradley County, however, are stuck in the digital Stone Age. “Most people think everybody has the availability of the internet,” Coltrin said. “Well, it’s not true at all. People in rural areas have few if [not] no options.”

Coltrin said those people who do have an internet connection in Bradley County rely on hotspots or satellite dishes. Hotspots work well if you have good cell phone coverage, she said, but Bradley County does not have the best cell phone coverage . . . and besides, hotspots are costly. Satellite service is also spotty and expensive, and users must have a clear view of the southern sky for their dishes. Coltrin’s nursery does not.

For years, residents in Bradley County have asked internet providers like Charter Communications and AT&T to run broadband cable and bring services to their community, but the companies have so far refused to do so. At a recent statewide broadband summit that Coltrin attended on behalf of a local community group, representatives from major telecommunications providers made it clear that the financial incentive just does not exist.

“We were told flat out by [the Charter Communications rep] that they wouldn’t come service us because people in the country are too poor,” Coltrin said. “He flat out told us that.”

A spokesman for Charter Communications did not respond to an inquiry from Truthout.

Bradley County and other rural communities outside Chattanooga have requested that EPB expand its world-class fiber connection to their area, because companies like Charter have failed to do so. EPB wants to expand its service to rural customers where economically feasible, but a state law passed in 1999 – before most American homes had internet access – is keeping the utility from doing so.

The law, which prevents local utilities from offering internet service outside of their electric service area, is one of 20 state laws restricting community-owned and municipal broadband. Many of the laws were passed under the guise of protecting taxpayers and promoting competition, but media reform advocates claim the laws were essentially written by the telecom lobby and pushed through state legislatures across the country.

Lawmakers in North Carolina, for example, passed a law in 2011 placing burdensome legal requirements on public utilities making it nearly impossible for them to offer telecommunications services. Similar legislation had failed in the past, but the bill found enough support after Republicans took over the legislature in 2010.

From 2006 to 2011, top telecom companies like AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink and Time Warner Cable and their lobbyists made $1.6 million in campaign contributions to North Carolina lawmakers, with larger donations strategically going to supporters and sponsors of the broadband bill, according to analysis by the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Time Warner and CenturyLink aggressively lobbied for the bill alongside the state telecommunications association.

The same powerful companies are now vigorously defending the laws against federal regulators and state lawmakers with frustrated rural constituents as municipal and community-owned broadband services seek to expand into rural areas.

Coltrin and her fellow residents of Bradley County want the Tennessee law overturned, and EPB does as well. EPB, along with a city that provides broadband and electric services to its residents in southeastern North Carolina, recently petitioned the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to intervene and preempt the state laws.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has said the agency has the authority to preempt these laws and, given the opportunity, would use it to promote competition and broadband expansion.

The FCC is currently taking comments on the petitions to intervene. Coltrin, along with other business owners and residents in Bradley County, have filed dozens of letters in support of federal intervention.

“There should not be a law preventing me from having the services that everybody else gets reasonably and cheaply,” Coltrin said.

Is the Internet a Public Utility?

The telecom lobby and its allies in Congress are not happy about the prospect of the FCC swooping in to preempt state municipal broadband laws. In July, the House voted 223-200 to approve an amendment introduced by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) that would block the FCC from intervening if it had any chance of progressing beyond the House.

As Truthout has reported, Blackburn has railed against FCC regulations for years and counts some of the largest broadband companies among her top campaign donors. Other Republicans who are putting pressure on Wheeler to stay out of the municipal broadband debate are also supported by the telecom industry, which is one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington.

Three of the nation’s largest broadband providers – AT&T, Verizon and Comcast – rank among the top 20 spenders when it comes to lobbying Congress, with each company spending roughly $100 million since 2008, according to the MapLight campaign finance database. The National Cable and Telecommunications Association spent nearly $114 million over the same period of time.

The telecom industry and its political allies argue that federal regulators should not interfere with state legislation, and public capital invested in municipal broadband should not compete with private capital put forward by broadband companies.

The industry trade group US Telecom points out that some municipal broadband projects have failed to live up to public expectations, and taxpayers were forced to foot the bill.

AT&T said the government should provide incentives for private investment in broadband infrastructure, not compete with it, according to the company’s recent filings with the FCC. Any policy that risks diminishing private sector investment, the company argues, is “short-sighted and unwise.”

“[Government owned networks (GONs)] should not be utilized where the private sector already is providing broadband or can be expected to do so in a reasonable timeframe,” the company’s attorneys wrote.

AT&T did not elaborate on what a “reasonable timeframe” would be, and spokesmen for the company did not respond to inquiries from Truthout.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing policy group known for working state lawmakers to push legislation on behalf of big business, wrote in a comment to the FCC that a “lack of technical know-how and good business sense has tanked many municipal broadband networks.” ALEC is also credited with pushing many of the same broadband-restricting state laws that the FCC would potentially preempt.

Wheeler has generally defended community-based broadband, noting that it has had “far more successes than failures.” In a recent speech, he said that “meaningful competition for high-speed wired broadband is lacking and Americans need more choices for faster and better internet connections.” He said it was “not acceptable” that more than 40 percent of American homes do not have access to high speed connections up to 100 megabits per second, and the government should support increased competition and deployment, especially in rural areas, regardless of who “steps up to the challenge.”

For Wheeler, expanding municipal broadband means more competition and more deployment of services, and that can only be a good thing. The Obama administration has not taken a specific stance on the issue, but Democrats like Sen. Edward Markey (Massachusetts) and Sen. Mike Doyle (Pennsylvania) are lining up in support of municipal broadband.

Wheeler is also embroiled in a highly partisan debate over the FCC’s latest proposal to establish net neutrality rules that would prevent broadband providers from discriminating against legal web content, such as a competitor’s website, for example.

Legal challenges from broadband companies have squashed the FCC’s earlier attempts to enforce net neutrality, and progressive and consumer advocates say the latest proposal is doomed to fail unless the FCC reclassifies the internet as a “common carrier” service that can be regulated like a public utility.

The debates over net neutrality and municipal broadband raise an interesting question – is the internet, which has expanded rapidly in the past 15 years, a luxury service like cable television, or an essential utility like electricity and water?

In Washington, the answer is drawn along ideological lines. For the telecom lobby and its conservative allies, the internet is a service provided by private companies to their customers, often alongside cable TV and home phone service. Regulations and publically owned broadband, the logic goes, would only spook private investors and stifle innovation.

Progressives and consumer advocates see internet access as crucial for civic and economic engagement in the 21st century and want it treated more like a public utility. The government has a role in protecting and even providing access to internet services, they argue, especially if the private sector is failing to live up to consumer expectations. (Cable and broadband companies consistently rank at the bottom of the American Customer Satisfaction Index.)

The Telecom Industry Pushes Back

Back in Tennessee, the debate does not necessarily fall along party lines.

“I firmly believed that the great divide now in state government is not partisan; it is not liberal and conservative,” said Janice Bowling, a Republican state senator from Tullahoma. “It is urban and rural.”

Bowling told Truthout that high-speed internet is an “essential utility,” and she is fighting to bring her rural constituents into the 21st century. The city of Tullahoma provides broadband services with speeds that rival the world-class service in Chattanooga, but the state law blocks the service from expanding to rural areas outside the city of 18,000.

Real-estate developers told her that they couldn’t attract industries to the area if high-speed internet is not available, Bowling said, and her rural constituents want access to telemedicine services and economic opportunities that require high-speed internet connections.

Local utilities and membership-based cooperatives have provided electric services in rural areas of Tennessee for decades, and some are now laying fiber optic cable to meet new smart meter standards. Bowling said that municipal broadband providers could work with these cooperatives and use that cable to bring high-speed internet to rural areas in need if state law would only allow it.

In February, Bowling introduced a bill in the state senate that would allow government utilities that provide broadband services to expand those services to economic development, education and health care projects within a limited “community improvement area.”

“My bill was not the solution, but it was part of the solution to make sure that every citizen of Tennessee, regardless of if they lived in urban or rural areas, has the ability to access this essential utility of the 21st century,” Bowling said.

Bowling found support among her fellow Republicans for the bill until the telecom industry stepped in. At a meeting with GOP leadership, Bowling said, industry representatives tried to convince lawmakers to put the bill on the back burner and let it die. When Bowling and others insisted that it should be introduced for debate, she said that AT&T Tennessee president Joelle Phillips simply said, “Well, I would hate to see this end in litigation.”

Support for the bill soon fell apart. Bowling said she was “shocked” by AT&T’s opposition.

Bowling said the utility cooperatives that could help provide high-speed internet in rural Tennessee are owned by subscribers, so private providers like AT&T would not be competing with taxpayer dollars. Plus, she said, the idea that tiny rural cooperatives can compete with a company that posted $18 billion in profits last year “can’t pass the straight face test.”

“I have no quarrel with [Phillips]; I have no quarrel with her corporation, but I have quarrel with the people of rural Tennessee being held hostage by their corporate profit margins,” Bowling said.

Several spokesmen for AT&T did not respond to emails from Truthout seeking comments.

AT&T has spent between $250,000 and $300,000 lobbying Tennessee lawmakers in 2014, according to the state’s ethics commission. Since 2012, the company has contributed $16 million to state-level candidates and committees across the country, including about $600,000 in Tennessee, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Incumbent telecom providers have challenged potential public competitors across the country in the courtroom, the halls of state legislatures and the ballot booth. In the mid-2000s, a community-led effort to build a $125 million high-speed fiber network in Lafayette, Louisiana, was blocked for four years by lawsuits filed by incumbent providers Cox Communications and BellSouth, which merged with AT&T in 2006. The companies also aggressively lobbied for state legislation restricting municipal broadband, according to a recent report by the Benton Foundation and the Institute for Local Self Reliance.

Lafayette spent millions of dollars defending its right to provide its own internet service in court while publically campaigning against the telecom companies to win a public referendum to build the network. The city ultimately succeeded despite the industry push back, and Lafayette soon became one of the fastest-growing urban economies in the South.

Bowling said she plans to keep pushing her legislation and hopes that the FCC intervenes on behalf of Chattanooga and preempts the law preventing broadband expansion in Tennessee. While members of her own party in Washington are some of the biggest critics of the FCC, which currently has a Democratic majority, Bowling stressed that rural broadband access was not a partisan issue, but a “pro-people and pro-business necessity to be connected to the 21st century.”

“We’re not trying to encroach where someone is adequately serving,” said Bowling, who likened her efforts to those that brought electricity to rural Tennesseans more than a century ago. “We’re trying to go into those dark spots . . . and turn on the lights.”

Rural Americans Can’t Afford to Wait

As the political drama plays out in Washington, Joyce Coltrin and the residents of Bradley County continue to wait to be brought up to speed with the 21st century.

“While everybody is debating who gets fiber optics, some people are waiting for basic internet service,” Coltrin said. “Why has this taken so long?”

Unfortunately, she said, some residents can’t afford to wait.

Coltrin said one member of her community group, which represents about 200 households, lost her job as a medical transcriptionist because she works from home and her satellite connection is too slow.

Dale Jobe, an IT specialist living in Bradley County, told the FCC that he pays up to $300 a month for internet service with limited data and “outrageous” overage fees. Jobe said his wife is a financial controller at a local company and his son is a freelance photographer, and all three need the internet to reach clients and work from home.

“I have heard mention that Bradley County is too poor to afford 21st Century internet services,” Jobe wrote in a filing with the FCC. “If that is the case, it is because most of us cannot afford to pay $300 a month for the limited data amounts we are forced to use today.”

If local provider Charter Communications has not been able to provide affordable internet service for decades, Jobe added, it’s time to “open the doors” to a business that can.

The FCC is taking comments on the petition to preempt the state laws in Tennessee and North Carolina until September 29, and the agency is expected to make a decision before the end of the year. The agency can expect lengthy legal challenges from the telecom industry if it decides to intervene. In the meantime, Coltrin said she would continue to advocate with her community organization in Bradley County – but keeping the group together is a challenge when people can’t read their email.