A long-running legal battle between private broadband providers and local governments is heating up again, this time in Tennessee—but one businessman is taking matters into his own hands.
In mid-March, Tennessee lawmakers rejected legislation that would have allowed government-run municipal broadband providers in the state to expand their service to rural areas. According to lawmakers speaking to the Knoxville News-Sentinel, the bill faced heavy opposition from commercial broadband providers including AT&T (T) and Comcast (CMCSA).
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Opposing government competition makes sense for those companies, but in many cases they don’t yet serve the areas in question, which are less profitable because of lower population density. That has left consumers caught in the middle—according to an FCC report released Thursday, 39% of rural U.S. residents don’t have access to broadband service.
Developer John “Thunder” Thornton found a workaround by partnering with the North Alabama Electric Cooperative, a municipal broadband provider just across the state line, to provide broadband to residents of his Jasper Highlands development. Alabama has no law restricting the expansion of its municipal networks. The expansion reportedly cost under $500,000, a stark contrast to AT&T’s quote of $1.3 million for the project.
Tennessee restrictions on municipal broadband expansion are “stifling our children in getting a quality education and creating an unfair disadvantage for existing business growth,” Thornton told Nooga.com. The divide is all the more apparent in towns just outside the reach of providers like EPB, where one’s home or business address could mean the difference between gigabit per second Internet speeds and a complete lack of broadband. It increasingly comes down to Internet access whether a town can attract new industries—like tech, healthcare, or finance—that increasingly rely on big data.
The FCC agrees, and has in the past endorsed municipal-run networks as a strategy for improving broadband access. It has also attempted to overturn laws in Tennessee and North Carolina that restrict those projects. The FCC has even taken steps to subsidize Internet access for low-income households. In the mean time, some rural Americans thirsty for Internet access have simply adopted mobile data as a solution, and startups like Starry are banking on wireless workarounds.
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The Jasper Highlands expansion shows what could become a more widespread consequence of laws like Tennessee’s: Government-run data utilities from one state serving customers—and collecting revenue—in another.