Tennessee Senate OKs bill to let nonprofit electric co-ops offer broadband

Tennessee State Capitol downtown Nashville. Photo by Ricky Rogers (The Tennessean) 4/27/2000

State senators voted 31-0 on Monday to allow Tennessee's nonprofit electric cooperatives to offer broadband, complete with cable-like video entertainment offerings, to customers living in their service areas.

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam pushed the legislation, dubbed the Broadband Accessibility Act. But the legislation leaves municipal electric systems, including Chattanooga's EPB with its lightning-fast gigabit service, largely penned up inside their existing service areas.

"This bill as amended does nothing to change that," said Bell, who handled the bill on the floor, in answer to questions posed by Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, D-Memphis.

Haslam waded this year into the years-old broadband/video war that has pitted EPB and other muni-electric systems in a legislative battle with for-profit and politically powerful providers including AT&T and Comcast.

The bill originally set a 25-megabit-per-second (Mbps) download requirement and 3 Mbps upload requirement. But that was watered down by an amendment that says the download requirement has to be at least 10 Mbps, with 1 Mbps uploads.

But Bell said "priority" in terms of tax breaks still will be given to investor-owned companies and grants for co-ops to those offering higher speed.

Some 34 percent of Tennesseans living in rural areas have no access to broadband, defined by the Federal Communications Commission at the 25/3 Mbps standard. Residents in parts of Southeast Tennessee who live outside EPB's service area for years have clamored for the muni-expansion.

Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, a longtime advocate of broadband expansion, supported the bill.

But for Bowling, the governor's bill, which has yet to see final House action, was at best a partial measure.

She later said allowing EPB and other municipal utilities that already have operations up and going would have speed up the process of getting broadband for businesses and homes, sometimes by up to three years.

Haslam originally excluded co-ops from also providing the cable-like video offerings. But the governor changed his mind as proponents said video entertainment was key in getting wide adoption in rural areas. It also will help the co-ops pay for the broadband service operation.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.