House panel kills compromise on EPB broadband expansion to underserved areas of Hamilton, Bradley counties

Tennessee state Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, speaks to the media in 2012.

NASHVILLE - Despite a last-ditch effort, Tennessee Rep. Kevin Brooks' effort on Tuesday to salvage his municipal broadband expansion bill by scaling it down to a demonstration project failed to win support in a key House panel.

Brooks, R-Cleveland, and other proponents later blasted powerful investor-owned telecommunication providers such as AT&T and Comcast for the loss. And conceding defeat this year, they vowed to return in 2017.

"It's a testament to the power of lobbying against this bill and not listening to our electorate," Brooks told reporters after leaving the House Business and Utilities Subcommittee, where his effort to narrow the original bill failed on a 5-3 vote.

photo Tennessee State Rep. Kevin Brooks (R-Cleveland) participates in a Chattanooga Times Free Press legislative roundtable on Monday. Photo taken January 26, 2009.
photo Tennessee Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, participates in a Chattanooga Times Free Press legislative roundtable in January 2009.

Brooks charged that "the voice of the people today was not heard. And that's unfortunate."

The proposal's failure comes with the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals scheduled to hear oral arguments Thursday in the state of Tennessee's appeal of last year's broadband decision by the Federal Communications Commission.

In response to complaints filed by Chattanooga's EPB and another municipal electric service in Wilson, N.C., the FCC decided 3-2 last March to set aside state laws it said have interfered with expansion of fast-speed broadband.

In his statement last year, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said that "in Tennessee and North Carolina, and in 17 other states, community broadband efforts have been blocked or severely curtailed by restrictive state laws - laws often passed due to heavy lobbying support by incumbent broadband providers."

Tennessee government argues in its appeal that the FCC overstepped its authority and violated states' rights.

On Tuesday at the state Capitol in Nashville, a platoon of lobbyists and executives, including AT&T Tennessee President Joelle Phillips, were present in the House hearing room or watching on a video screen as Brooks presented the bill and the amendment.

Brooks' original bill sought to let EPB and other municipal electric services expand their broadband Internet and video offerings to willing electric co-operatives across Tennessee.

In the end, his amendment would have set up a demonstration project in which the state comptroller would select a municipal service headquartered in a county and allow it to offer broadband to a rural electric cooperative located in the same county as well as an adjoining county.

The description fits EPB, headquartered in Hamilton County, and Volunteer Electric Cooperative, which operates in parts of Hamilton and nearby Bradley counties, to a tee.

It failed on the 5-3 vote with Rep. Marc Gravitt, R-East Ridge, voting for Brooks' amendment and Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, a one-time AT&T executive, voting against it.

As Rep. Kent Calfee, R-Kingston, the subcommittee's chairman, prepared to move on to the next bill, he suddenly realized the original bill remained before the panel.

"I'm sorry," Calfee, who voted against the amendment, told Brooks as the Cleveland lawmaker turned to leave. "It's the amendment [that failed]. Is there any need to vote on the bill?"

Brooks replied, "The amendment makes the bill. I'd love a vote on the bill."

"Sorry about that," Calfee said.

And that was that.

Residents and business people alike in northern Hamilton and portions of Bradley counties say they either have no service, lousy service or wireless service that makes it very expensive to upload and download documents for work and school.

Asked who was lobbying against the bill, Brooks said, "the list of who was not would be shorter. I heard they hired 27 lawyers to fight."

Phillips declined to speak about the bill and referred a Times Free Press reporter to a spokesman who did not immediately provide a response.

Rep. Dan Howell, R-Georgetown, whose Bradley County district would have benefited from the amendment, said the scaled-down effort "was the perfect opportunity for EPB to be a pilot and to prove they can do what they say they can do. And if they can't do it, it's a perfect opportunity to put it to rest forever.

"They wouldn't even let us do a pilot to prove that EPB can do what it claimed," Howell added.

But with two other bills mired in the subcommittee, proponents said they've gotten a clear message with regard to this year. But they vowed to come back in 2016.

"It's all been put on hold until we come back next year, but we probably will have a summer study on it - a real summer study," said Rep. Art Swann, R-Maryville, who has one of the bills.

"I think we've got the attention of the industry finally and I think they're going to come to table and start talking seriously about this rather than running continual delays and delays," Swann said.

AT&T, Comcast and other providers say it's unfair to have them compete against government entities, and they insist most areas are served well despite customer complaints.

In a statement, AT&T said the bill wasn't going to serve its intended purpose.

"AT&T has been clear that we aren't opposed to municipal broadband when it is targeted to unserved areas, but none of the bills considered ... has any provision that would limit government expansion to unserved areas or even focus on those areas.

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has raised similar concerns.

But Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, who has a bill that would allow expansion when electric co-op boards, which are elected by their memberships, allow it, said he'll be back and plans to "spend the summer organizing people."

Carter likened it to his so-far successful uphill battles against municipal annexation.

"You just don't go up against Goliath unless you have your sling and five stones. I just didn't have my five stones today."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at 615-255-0550 or