NASHVILLE — Legislation that would let Chattanooga’s EPB and other municipal electric services offer cable, telephone and broadband Internet outside their service areas short-circuited in a Senate committee Tuesday.
The problem came when an amendment aiming to put Tennessee’s 23 rural electric cooperatives’ operations under the state’s Open Meetings Act — a cable industry-backed amendment — appeared on the verge of passing the Senate’s Commerce Committee.
Cooperatives were willing to make some of their meetings open to the public, but the amendment would make all cooperative meetings open. Historically, the cooperatives are not governmental entities and instead are member owned and controlled, which places them outside the state’s open-meetings laws, Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association Executive Vice President Tom Purkey said.
Officials and lobbyists for the association had hoped to use the Senate bill to let their members offer cable and fast Internet services in rural areas. When the other amendment showed up, however, they quickly signaled to the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Doug Jackson, D-Dickson, to drop it.
Sen. Jackson did that, but he and other proponents of the legislation said they might be back if a “less aggressive” version being worked on in the House comes to fruition today.
“This thing is being redrafted somewhat down in the House,” Sen. Jackson said.
Chattanooga attorney and lobbyist Mark Smith, who is representing EPB, said he remains hopeful that something can be salvaged.
“There’s been so much attention on broadband, I would hope that anything that passes in the House was a step forward,” he said. “As to what the details are, I don’t know.”
Tennessee Cable and Telecommunications Association President Stacey Burks Briggs said the trade group that sponsored the amendment, a group that includes Chattanooga cable provider Comcast, is concerned the municipal and rural cooperatives’ bill would give them an unfair business advantage and pay for the new services with money from electric customers, which is illegal.
The association already is suing EPB over the power provider’s plan to offer cable services in its existing service area, claiming EPB intends to illegally underwrite the venture. EPB officials deny the charge.
Ms. Briggs said while the municipal providers say they only want to help cooperatives deploy broadband to unserved areas, their real purpose is to offset losses in their own cable and telephone ventures.
“The fact that they don’t have enough customers to pay their bills is an indication that their altruistic purpose in bringing broadband is ... not what it appears to be,” she said.
EPB President Harold DePriest said last week the bill would let the provider operate outside its current “footprint.”
“It just makes sense,” Mr. DePriest said. “We can provide services and help them (co-ops).” He noted that EPB has telephone-switching equipment that can be rented to the co-ops.
Mr. Purkey said last week the bill was needed because “we have some folks in the rural areas that do not have high-speed Internet.”
But Ms. Briggs countered that a provision in a huge compromise bill between AT&T and cable companies already allows joint ventures between cable, municipal electric services and cooperatives in unserved areas.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...