Charter offers free airtime to lawmakers after Tennessee House kills bill EPB expansion

(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)
(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

NASHVILLE - Less than 24 hours after a Tennessee House panel killed a municipal broadband expansion bill opposed by the cable industry, Charter Communications offered state lawmakers a chance to star in their very own "public service announcements" aimed at cable-watching constituents.

In his invitation, Nick Pavlis, investor-owned Charter's director of government affairs in Tennessee, says that "as a leading broadband communications provider and cable operator serving customers in Tennessee, Charter is committed to providing compelling public affairs programming and public service announcements."

"We hope you will take advantage of this opportunity to speak directly to your constituents," says Pavlis, also a Knoxville city councilman, in the invitation. "Taping times are available on a first-come, first-served basis, so we encourage you to schedule yours as soon as possible."

A copy of the invitation was obtained Wednesday by the Times Free Press after House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, forwarded the invite to representatives via email.

The PSAs are to be recorded at the state Capitol next week.

Local lawmakers involved in the broadband fight are suspicious of Charter's offer and particularly the timing.

"Right now it would appear to those watching from the outside that big business won and big business is now reciprocating," said Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, whose effort to offer a scaled-down compromise on his muni-broadband expansion bill was shot down Tuesday in the House Business and Utilities Subcommittee.

While Charter's reservation of space in Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey's rarely used second-floor office in the state Capitol appears to have been made before the vote, it still came as various telecommunications' lobbyists were working against broadband bills sponsored by Brooks and other mostly Chattanooga-area legislators.

"I think the timing is intentional," Brooks said. He noted that while public television station WTCI in Chattanooga often offered representatives and senators an opportunity to discuss pending issues at the state Capitol, he can't recall Charter ever doing so.

Brooks' amendment would have restricted the bill to a narrow demonstration project allowing just the city of Chattanooga's EPB to offer services outside its footprint in unserved or underserved homes and businesses in rural parts of Hamilton and Bradley counties.

The amendment was shot down on a 5-3 vote in a subcommittee as a platoon of cable and other telecommunications industry lobbyists and executives watched.

Asked about Charter's invitation, the Senate sponsor of Brooks' bill, Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said, "I think they read the handwriting on the wall."

Gardenhire said in his view the invitation isn't appropriate.

"Charter has done everything they could possibly do to deny rural Bradley broadband, Internet/content service," he said.

Contacted at the telephone number listed on Charter's invitation, Pavlis said he couldn't comment and referred a reporter to the company's corporate communications director.

Patti Michel, Charter's director of regional communications in the South, did not immediately respond to a voice mail message.

Rep. Dan Howell, R-Georgetown, wasn't happy either and called the PSA offer "odd and maybe a little bit unfortunate."

"Well, my first inclination is to say I'm surprised, coming the day after they killed the broadband bill in committee," said Howell, who represents a number of Bradley County constituents he noted would benefit from muni-broadband expansion. "We could have given Internet broadband on a competitive basis, especially to people in rural Tennessee."

He said it finds it "kind of ironic now that they're asking people to come forward and make public service announcements about how good their service is. I'm kind of stunned."

Howell said he plans to "respectfully decline, because my allegiance is with my constituents who have asked me to bring rural broadband to their communities. I've got constituents who've been waiting 20-plus years to get access."

Charter's offer of free time to speak on public issues also comes with lawmakers hoping to go home soon and begin reelection campaigns.

Harwell spokeswoman Kara Owen said Wednesday the "conversation" about Charter Communications' PSAs "began a couple of weeks ago. It didn't have anything to do with the bill. It's a public service announcement."

Owen noted Nashville Public Television has done PSAs in the past. Asked if Charter had ever offered the opportunity to Tennessee lawmakers, Owen said "my understanding is they had done it in North Carolina."

The proposal's failure and Charter's PSA offer come with the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals scheduled to hear oral arguments today in Cincinnati on 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.

Contact Andy Sher at, 615-255-0550 or follow via twitter at AndySher1.