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Tennessee moves to roll back laws limiting public broadband services

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The recently announced merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable has reminded a lot of consumers about what they just don't like about big, private broadband companies. They charge high prices for slow speeds and there's little in the way of competition.

It's a dilemma that's been around for more than a decade. Some communities have tried to fight it by establishing their own public broadband services. But since 2004, more than 20 states have passed or are considering passing bills that prevent municipalities from creating their own broadband alternatives. These laws come at the behest of private Internet service providers (ISPs) looking to stamp out competition.

But it seems the tide may be turning back in favor of public Internet providers as the Tennessee legislature considers four separate bills aimed at undoing that state's law discouraging the creation of public broadband utilities.

Presently, Tennessee imposes a number of extra requirements on public telecom providers, according to ArsTechnica. The current law says that public electric utilities may only provide telecom service if they comply with various regulations regarding public disclosures, hearings and elections. Private companies do not have to deal with any of these extraneous provisions. The law also states that municipalities that do not operate electric utilities can only provide telecommunication service in "historically unserved areas" through a partnership with private broadband providers.

These laws and similar ones enacted in other states, are the work of private ISPs according to James Baller, an attorney who's been fighting these legislative initiatives. Since a Supreme Court ruling in 2004 upheld the right of states to limit public broadband competition under the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996, ISPs have pressured state lawmakers into passing bills limiting municipal broadband. The stated purpose of these bill has often been to preserve private sector jobs. A recent North Carolina bill was called "An act to protect jobs and investment by regulating local government competition with private business."

Baller recently wrote that public broadband providers aren't driven by profits the way private companies are, thus they often provide more affordable service.

"Municipalities typically have lower costs than private entities and do not seek the high short-term profits that shareholders and investors expect of private entities," Baller said. "As a result, municipalities can sometimes serve areas that private entities shun and can often provide more robust and less expensive services than private entities are willing to offer."

The idea that giant telecom providers like Comcast and Time Warner need to be protected from municipal utilities is one that many find absurd. That's why lawmakers in Tennessee are now seeking to reverse earlier legislative limits on public broadband.

Among the four proposed pieces of legislation, two are focused on particular localities while two others call for statewide policy changes.

One bill would let the Clarksville municipal electric system provide fiber services outside its normal territory. Another would let Trousdale County contract with rural electric cooperatives to provide broadband services. One of the broader bills would let electric cooperatives across the state with dark fiber networks provide broadband to customers not served by existing telephone cooperatives, while the other would authorize municipal electric systems and other utilities to provide broadband outside their current service areas.

In a surprising twist, according to broadband industry analyst Craig Settles, many of these bills are being pushed by GOP lawmakers who are more often seen championing priviate business.

"Republican lawmakers, typically the party that leads the charge against public-owned networks, are taking the lead on many of these bills in Tennessee," Settles writes.

In a not so surprising twist, private broadband providers have denounced these legislative efforts in Tennessee.

"We are particularly concerned about four bills that have been introduced this session," said Levoy Knowles, executive director of the Tennessee Telecommunications Association, in a written statement. "These bills would allow municipalities to expand beyond their current footprint and offer broadband in our service areas. If this were to happen, municipalities could cherry-pick our more populated areas, leaving the more remote, rural consumers to bear the high cost of delivering broadband to these less populated regions."

Photo by Jason Mrachina/Flickr