EPB expansion now up to FCC

The public comment and response period for EPB's federal request to expand its broadband service beyond the Gig City's borders ended this week. And now the power board's expansion dreams are squarely in the hands of the Federal Communications Commission.

More than 230 lobbyists, government groups, politicians, businesses and ordinary Joes voiced their support -- or vehement disapproval -- of EBP's effort to take its 1-gigabit-per-second Internet service outside its service area in Tennessee and surrounding states. The input came during a 60-day comment period that ended Monday.

FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield said staff will analyze the filings and make a recommendation to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. Approval will take a majority vote of the full five-person commission, he said.

"There's no particular timeline on this. Some things have a statutory deadline, but not this one," Wigfield said.

The FCC will be addressing EPB's request along with one from Wilson, N.C.

Competing cable and Internet providers, such as AT&T and Comcast, and a cadre of state and federal politicians opposed the EPB request, saying it would be a federal overreach of state laws meant to protect taxpayers from dangerous investments and promote competition.

They say municipal broadband unfairly competes with existing private companies who don't have access to government infrastructure funds.

But EPB, other municipal groups and broadband businesses such as Netflix say Chattanooga should have the right to expand and that old state laws are acting as handcuffs.

One of the last filings came from the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based group that has recently battled with the public utility for charging thousands of dollars in fees for open records requests. Former Free Press Editor Drew Johnson is part of that group.

The TPA filing accuses EPB of low-balling the cost of Smart Grid and supporting its broadband endeavors with its monopoly electric power service. The group warns that debt service on bonds used to build the grid could capsize EPB and leave taxpayers on the hook for the bill.

"Chattanooga residents will not be able to escape that hefty price tag. If EBP cannot afford the suffocating bond payments, the electric monopoly will raise electricity rates. Since the city owns EPB, if the utility defaults on its bonds, Chattanooga taxpayers will have to foot the bill," TPA President David Williams wrote.

Further, the group claims EPB inappropriately uses its electric service workers to promote broadband service, and urges electric ratepayers to sign up for broadband service.

But EPB said in its own response those claims are "incorrect, incomplete or irrelevant."

"Whatever one may say about supposed failures of community broadband networks elsewhere, EPB's network has been highly successful," according to its filing.

EPB also maintains that it keeps its electric and broadband businesses separate.

On Friday, EPB spokeswoman Danna Bailey said the utility was not responding specifically to any single comment, but wanted to respond broadly.

"Our position remains as it's been. We believe communities should have the choice at the local level about their broadband futures. We are not interested in expanding anywhere unless we are asked to," Bailey said.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com, @glbrogdoniv on Twitter or at 423-757-6481.