John "Thunder" Thornton, the driving force behind the 9,000-acre Jasper Highlands development, has weighed into the debate over whether EPB and other municipalities should be allowed to expand high-speed broadband in the face of criticism from cable giants.
"Mr. Chairman, tear down this wall," he wrote in a letter to Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.
The fight over the expansion of EPB's gigabit Internet is about more than just competition, federalism and philosophy, he said. In reality, the lack of any real competition in rural areas is actually hitting some communities where it hurts the most -- in the wallet.
In Thornton's case, AT&T and other providers refused to provide his developing 2,000-lot mountaintop complex with Internet access unless he coughed up as much as $1.3 million of his own money, including a $130,000 down payment just to design the route, he said. Meanwhile, those same firms, including AT&T, lobbied legislators to prevent EPB or other municipal entities from providing that service at a cheaper rate.
In the meantime, Thornton is finding that customers are wary of moving to an area without a solid connection to the outside world.
"Our residential development attracts pre-retirees and retirees from all over the country, and many times the first question these customers ask us when they get to our property has nothing to do with the price of a home site, what it costs to build, amenities, etc., but rather, 'What kind of Internet will be available?,'" he said. "They will not make the move until there's adequate Internet speed on the mountain."
From doctors who need to download high-resolution images of patients to first-responders who need to stay abreast of potential emergencies, modern society has moved to depend on reliable Internet while existing providers have struggled to keep up, he said.
"We feel it's as necessary as water," said Thornton, who has personally invested more than $15 million into the Jasper Highlands project. "If I could move our mountain and office to a location that was within EPB's footprint, I would do it in a heartbeat, but we're held hostage due to the current legislation."
There are other options available, including private providers who assemble a patchwork of fiber and cable connections for communities like the Jasper Highlands, but that type of stopgap product isn't Thornton's first choice. He wants EPB.
"It's as if Marion County is a desert and Chattanooga has this massive reservoir of clear, clean water only eight miles away," he said. "It's like putting a high-school junior varsity football team against the Denver Broncos and expecting them to compete: it's just not going to happen and never will if the playing field isn't leveled out."
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