Congressman Marsha Blackburn shuts Tribune out of broadband meeting

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

By Jay Langston

Editor

Congressman Marsha Blackburn convened a meeting of what appeared to be at least 100 area business and electrical coop executives at Columbia State Community College Friday February 24, 2017, to discuss rural Internet accessibility, and she denied any press access to the meeting.

When your editor of the Marshall County Tribune attempted to gain access to the meeting, Blackburn’s Press Secretary Abby Lemons said, “This meeting is closed to press. This meeting is off the record.”

Judging from the insignia and signs on vehicles parked in the Hickman Building parking lot at Columbia State, a broad spectrum of executives from rural electrical cooperatives, Internet providers, and telephone service providers were in attendance. In addition to several government officials, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai and LeVoy Knowles, executive director of the Tennessee Telecommunications Association were reported to be in attendance.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) left Blackburn’s meeting to discuss with the Tribune Governor Haslam’s Rural Broadband initiative, announced recently.

The Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act will provide $45 million over three years in grants and tax credits for service providers to assist in making broadband available to unserved homes and businesses. In addition, the law will permit the state’s private, nonprofit electrical cooperatives to provide retail broadband service and make grant funding available to the state’s local libraries to help residents improve digital literacy skills to maximize the benefits of broadband.

Many of the businesses represented at the meeting could be in competition for the same customers.

Tennessee taxpayers will pay for Internet service where it doesn’t exist now, and it might make all internet service faster.

“We need better access, not bigger government,” Sen. Norris said. “Broadband is critical to commerce and the quality of life for every Tennessean and is essential for our current and future education and economic initiatives.”

Norris was re-elected last month to a fifth term as Chairman of the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Affairs (TACIR). This group took the lead on studying Tennessee’s internet service gap between rural, suburban and urban users. The group’s learned that 34 percent of rural residents have poor to no internet access, which represents about 725,000 people. “We started looking at this problem about 18 months ago,” Norris said. “It’s been challenging. How do we work with federal government and private industry to build out the network? Electrical coops believe they are the most expeditious way to access these communities. They already have the poles and customer networks. Right now, they can’t provide broadband, and this (law) will allow them to do that. Coops can’t provide TV and video right now, and they’d very much like to do that. They are anxious to do that.”

In the wake of Gov. Haslam’s broadband Internet push, rural electrical cooperatives have been rallying their troops. “All of them have been negotiating for the past couple of weeks to get on the same wavelength,” Sen. Norris said. At present, companies are seeking “what guardrails can be put in place to provide competition and protect the competitors.”

If passed, the new law will take “from two to 10 years to have a significant impact,” Sen. Norris said. The budget for the broadband plan is to provide $15 million in tax incentives to cooperators. A potential scenero is that internet service providers under the umbrella of the plan will have their state taxes cut by that amount over the next three years. The other part of the plan is to provide $30 million in grants to build out the necessary infrastructure. On other words, the companies would get paid to hang wires on poles or bury them in the ground.

One of many questions that may arise is: If Tennessee taxpayer money pays to hang the wires on the poles, who owns the wires?