Marion County cities call for broadband extension

Marion County attorney photo by Ryan Lewis
photo Marion County Mayor David Jackson

JASPER, Tenn. - Marion County leaders are once again endorsing a change to state law that restricts municipal utilities like Chattanooga's EPB's from expanding gigabit Internet, TV, and phone services outside their current boundaries.

"We're trying to get state legislators to change the law and allow EPB to come out of their service area into Marion County," County Mayor David Jackson said.

In the last two weeks, the Marion County Commission and the Kimball Board of Mayor and Alderman both voted unanimously to approve a resolution requesting Tennessee lawmakers adopt legislation that will allow that to happen.

City leaders in Jasper, Whitwell, South Pittsburg and every other municipality in the county will vote on similar resolutions at upcoming meetings.

All are expected to support it.

"There's a movement, pretty well statewide now, to expand broadband and fiber optic networks throughout rural areas of the state," County Attorney Billy Gouger said. "In order to do that, there has to be a change in the state law."

Some county residents from rural Mullins Cove visited Jackson's office last month to complain that they have no Internet service "of any kind" available.

"But they look across the river and can see EPB in Haletown," Jackson said. "We've just got a lot of people that do not have the capability of getting any type of broadband or Internet service."

He added that the county's school system, small businesses, and industries in rural areas desperately need the kinds of services EPB provides, too.

photo Mayor Rex Pesnell

"We're at a disadvantage in rural areas of the county or the state by not being able to have access to broadband," Gouger said.

The resolution will be forwarded to state leaders, including Gov. Bill Haslam and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, as well as all of the county's state delegates.

Kimball Mayor Rex Pesnell said Kimball's board and others across the county supported the change in 2014 before the last legislative cycle, but the law wasn't changed.

Telecommunications providers such as Comcast and AT&T have lined up solidly against allowing municipal providers to expand. They say it's unfair for government-owned services to compete against private industry.

State Sen. Janice Bowling has indicated that the legislation will be "essentially the same as last time," Gouger said, but now there's a stronger movement to get the law changed.

"They're going to try it again," he said. "There are some other concessions being made that will [give it] a better chance of passing this time."

Ryan Lewis is based in Marion County. Contact him at ryanlewis34