FCC order allows EPB to expand Gig service to outlying areas

FCC order allows EPB to expand Gig service to outlying areas

March 13th, 2015 by Dave Flessner in Business Around the Region

Electric Power Board president and CEO Harold DePriest

Electric Power Board president and CEO Harold DePriest

Photo by Margaret Fenton

The Federal Communications Commission Thursday lifted state restrictions on where EPB may offer its high-speed broadband Internet service.

In a 183-page ruling, the FCC granted EPB and the city of Wilson, N.C., the authority to expand their telecom services outside their existing territories despite Tennessee and North Carolina laws against such actions.

The ruling, which was issued two weeks after FCC commissioners voted 3-2 in favor of the petitions for service expansion from EPB and the city of Wilson, immediately allows EPB to extend its gigabit-per-second Internet to such areas as southern Bradley County where no broadband service is currently available. But opponents of the FCC decision, including Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, AT&T and other private telecom providers, have 30 days to mount a court challenge to the FCC decision.

EPB President Harold DePriest said he applauds the FCC ruling, but added a word of caution.

"It may be some time before the dust settles on this ruling," DePriest said.

In the commission's decision on Feb. 26, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler called the issue "simple" even though state officials have complained that the federal agency is usurping local control and regulatory authority.

"Communities across the nation, including these two petitioners, understand that access to fast, fair, and open broadband networks is key to their economic future and the future of their citizens," Wheeler said. "But as the Commission's 2015 Broadband Progress Report makes clear, broadband deployment especially in rural areas is not occurring broadly or quickly enough to meet the increasing bandwidth demands of consumers."

But FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, a Republican opposed to the FCC overruling state limits on municipal broadband, noted that Tennessee's limits on where municipal power utilities may offer broadband services were adopted in 1999 by a 96-0 vote in the state House and a 32-0 vote in the state Senate.

"Today, however, three unelected officials in Washington, DC, purport to rewrite Tennessee law on a party-line vote," Pai said. "They attempt to empower Tennessee municipal electric systems to offer broadband service outside of their service areas -- authority which those systems have never possessed...In other words, once the people's elected representatives allow municipalities to offer any Internet service at all, the camel's nose owns the tent."

Haslam has asked the state's attorney general to consider appealing the FCC decision, which critics claim represents an illegal and undue interference by the federal government of state regulatory authority.

In Tennessee, state Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, is pushing a separate state legislative proposal to overturn Tennessee's limit on municipal power utilities providing telecom service outside of their power service territories. Bowling, who previously served on the Tullahoma Utilities Board, says she prefers that Tennessee expand telecom service with its own laws, not through an FCC order.

DePriest agrees.

"We're glad that a growing number of state lawmakers are supporting proposed legislation that would remove the territorial restrictions that currently prevent municipal utilities from extending fiber services to neighboring areas," he said. "This Tennessee-driven approach is the best near-term option for serving more of the people across our state who are currently underserved or poorly served with broadband connectivity."

But AT&T and other private telecom companies are fighting both the FCC and state bills to allow more municipal broadband expansions in competition with their cable TV, phone and Internet services. Private telecom companies have complained that municipal utilities have an unfair tax and borrowing advantage and may cross subsidize competitive telecom services with money from monopoly power service.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340.