Tennessee Senator Tries Again With Bill to Restore Local Authority

Senator Janice Bowling has become a broadband hero in rural Tennessee and on the pages of MuniNetworks.org. Year after year, she introduces legislation aimed at expanding local authority to allow communities the ability to improve connectivity. She’s back this year with several bills aimed at expanding fiber in rural areas. 

Seeking Better Connectivity…That’s All

Like Bowling’s past legislation, related bills SB 489, SB 490, and SB 494 grant municipal electric utilities the authority “to provide telecommunications service, including broadband service” and specifies that they can do so beyond their electric service area. This change in the current law would allow places like her own community of Tullahoma to expand to serve neighboring towns. There is no fiscal impact from the Senator’s bills.

Bowling has seen firsthand how access to fiber optic infrastructure, such as Tullahoma’s LightTUBe, lifts economic development, improves educational opportunities, and helps a local community reduce costs. The city has thrived since investing in the network in 2009, while many of the communities that have had to rely on subpar service from the larger incumbents have limped along. 

SB 489 also extends authority for municipalities to collaboration for telecommunications and broadband service, to ease any uncertainty about public-private partnerships.

janice-bowling.jpg In her broadband bills, Senator Bowling defines “broadband” as 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) symmetrical, a move that illustrates the value of upload speeds in today’s economy. Rather than considering subscribers as consumers of Internet access, the Senator recognizes that their ability to send information is part of what drives the online economy.

Cooperative Questions Resolved

The bill also addresses some of the issues facing cooperatives, which are a increasingly developing Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) networks in rural areas of Tennessee and other states

While electric co-ops would still be prohibited by state law from subsidizing broadband and telecom services with electric side revenues, SB 489 explicitly authorizes electric co-ops to offer such services. Additionally, the bill would remove the current requirement that an electric cooperative establish a separate subsidiary and offer broadband and telecom services through that subsidiary. Telephone cooperatives also receive explicit authority to construct broadband infrastructure and offer services. 

The bill recognizes that cooperatives have enormous potential to bring high-quality Internet access to much of Tennessee’s rural areas. The language of SB 489 states that electric cooperatives have the authority to offer broadband beyond their service areas. SB 489 states that telephone cooperatives can supply telecommunications services and broadband beyond their “historic service area.” 

Read the text of SB 489.

Not Yet, Tennessee

On March 5th, Senator Bowling spoke briefly before the Commerce and Labor Committee, where her bills were being discussed. 

She described how she had visited universities and colleges, including those in places where municipal utilities furnished the fiber connections they needed. In contrast, she was told by Tennessee Tech, where there is no fiber, that such infrastructure in the rural areas of the state would be the “biggest economic impact the state could have.”

She chose to bypass a vote and she moved the bill to the General Subcommittee because she felt none of the bills had the necessary support. Bowling said she thought that, rather than see the bills “go down in flames,” the better course is to educate legislators and constituents and approach the subject in the future.

Watch Bowling’s brief presentation to the Committee, which begins at 22:50:


Slow and Steady Wins the Race

Folks from the Jefferson County Broadband Action Group, like other rural grassroots organizations in the state, want to see the harmful Tennessee restriction lifted so local communities can do their part to expand fiber connectivity. In a March 6th post, they wrote a post describing SB 489, SB 490, and SB 494 and encouraged constituents to act:

…Please contact your Representatives and Senators to ensure that they co-sponsor or back these important bills! …[L]egislation passed in 2016 authorizing broadband to be supplied by telephone and electric cooperatives was a step in the right direction, but it didn't go nearly far enough to rapidly deploy fiber broadband to needy rural areas in the state of Tennessee. Many of these areas will be waiting for years to get fiber broadband at the current rate of deployment by the cooperatives.

Senator Bowling has decided to take a long-game approach to passing her bills. The time will allow ample opportunity for more constituents to contact their Senators and Representatives, to express their thoughts about supporting SB 489 and lifting Tennessee restrictions. If you’re interested in contacting your elected officials to express your thoughts about this bill and its companion, HB 821 from Rep. Iris Rudder, find your elected official at the Tennessee General Assembly website.

You can also join the Jefferson County Broadband Action Group on FB to get more updates in your FB feed.