Poor internet and weak cell phone service a way of life in Marshall County
By Jay Langston
Right now, there’s someone in rural Marshall County, Tenn., who is watching their ISP’s monthly data allowance like the fuel gauge on their car, while someone else walks out on their front porch searching for a cell phone signal to make a call. Broadband discussions at state and federal levels today will make a difference to these people and they may not even know it.
In the new Congress, the District 7 Republican Congressman from Tennessee, Marsha Blackburn, now serves as Chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology. This committee has oversight over the Federal Communications Commission, as well as all matters related to cable, wireless, and broadband networks, including privacy and cybersecurity. Congressman Blackburn’s support of new FCC Chairman Agit Pai and his track record of supporting a free-market approach to providing internet service, has created a firestorm of negative online press for the Congressman.
Asked about recent FCC maneuvers, the Congressman shared “What we expect to happen with Chairman Pai, (is to) focus on areas that don’t have broadband access,” Blackburn said. “With the FCC, Title II has outlived its usefulness. Their focus is on broadband and broadband expansion.”
Pai drove the point home at his first FCC meeting as commissioner on January 31, 2017. “I favor a free and open Internet and oppose Title II,” he said. Title II, that Pai referred to, is that part of the Communications Act of 1934 that was regulated by the FCC’s previous chairman to classify internet service providers (ISPs) as common carriers and that they be regulated as such. This creates more red tape in bringing broadband internet service to rural counties, like Marshall and Bedford. “We fill out hundreds of forms each year, and I doubt that many of them are read,” United Communications President William Bradford said. United Communications is an ISP and cable television provider based in Chapel Hill, Tenn., with a customer base in Marshall, Bedford and Williamson counties.
Even though Blackburn’s Congressional district doesn’t include the majority of this paper’s readership, the work that she is doing for broadband expansion in her counties will yield the same benefits for rural counties across the entire state, or rural communities across America for that matter.
Some of the challenges and questions that will have to be answered is “how do we best provide connectivity to an area,” Blackburn said. “The way that the application process that is in place works, it benefits urban providers.” She went on to say that changes must be made to make it easier for rural broadband providers to work their way through various application processes.
“The adoption rate is only 60 percent, and it needs to get up to 80 percent,” Blackburn added. A higher percentage of rural populations are comprised of older-age adults, with many of them still relying on land-line phones and lower use per capita of computers.
The Congressman addressed some of the hurdles for the Tennessee’s recent rural broadband push. “Some of the providers were saying they felt like that permitting, (tower) siting, tower placement were really important,” Blackburn said of comments received at the recent Broadband summit. “These things need to be addressed to make it easier.” A reduction in red tape and paperwork for ISPs by acquiring “a permit once at the state level and get it to work at the local level” too, is one such measure, Blackburn added. “They talked about the pole attachment issue. The ISPs want to be a part of the discussion of the pole attachment issue,” Blackburn added. “It makes deployment more affordable.”
Current rural ISP owners want a place at the table when discussions take place about allowing rural electrical cooperatives offering broadband service because it would put them in direct competition for the same customers. When asked about the potential for United Communications coming into direct competition with the deregulated rural electrical cooperatives, like Duck River Electrical Membership Cooperative, “That’s a possibility,” Bradford said. “It’s a possibility that we compete with anybody. We’re used to being in a competitive business. We see it more as an opportunity than anything else. Maybe there’s opportunities for partnerships. We like to think we’re pretty nimble.”
“This meeting a week ago was a positive first step. It’s good for Middle Tennessee, and Congressman Blackburn’s appointment to the Communications Committee Chairmanship, and Chairman Pai at the FCC. He believes what we believe, that there’s too much regulation,” Bradford said. “I generally think that there’s a lot of room for improvement for broadband deployment for companies like United. There are significant opportunities for growth. Rural areas still have a meaningful portion that aren’t upgraded for today’s modern consumer. There’s room for growth. We’re trying to upgrade as fast as we can to do that.”
Hard wired expansion isn’t the only method of broadband deployment recognized by providers. Growth in the number of cell phone towers is included, too.
“It needs to be technology neutral,” Blackburn said of broadband deployment. “There’s a need for every different type of technology. Fixed wireless may be perfect for areas that are very flat, or it may need to be fixed wire. We need the flexibility. Let’s be technology neutral -- Chairman Pai calls it technology agnostic – in providing connectivity to people.”
Going beyond the funding Governor Haslam’s state-level broadband initiative will provide, “I think what you will see is a couple of different things,” Blackburn said. “Money from grants from the FCC will be available, and money through the President’s infrastructure programs.”
“Broadband is the 21st century issue,” Blackburn concluded. “We want to be certain that the infrastructure is in place; wireless towers in place. Our goal is to help bridge that gap. It is my number one goal to see broadband expansion take place.” People in rural America “know that opportunities will be limited in work and health care and other areas if we don’t make these technologies available.”