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Staff file photo / Service technicians Stacy Mann, left, and Nathen Lloyd step out of an EPB trailer with a newly installed fiber optics cable during an installation at CityGreen Apartments in Chattanooga's North Shore area in 2016.
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Proponents of allowing providers like EPB expand their internet services say slow speeds at best and unavailability at worst are major detriments to a large portion of residents across the state.

Disappointment came for many rural Hamilton and Bradley county residents on Aug. 10 when a U.S. appeals court struck down a 2015 Federal Communications Commission order that would have allowed EPB and other city-owned utilities to expand their high-speed internet services to previously unserved areas.

Though the court ruling means several locals will continue to pay higher prices for slower-speed internet despite voicing their concerns to state representatives, officials with the Tennessee-based broadband provider promised residents they are not giving up.

"We have a growing number of state lawmakers who are very supportive," said J.Ed. Marston, vice president of marketing at EPB. "We're hopeful that with the support of people who care about this issue they will rework the policy to allow greater freedom for customers to choose among a competitive field of broadband providers."

Despite the upheld restrictions on EPB's territory limits, Marston said the legislators "made more progress last year than we had ever seen on this issue," and added that the lawmakers are expected to sponsor the legislation again come January.

While lawmakers are appealing to the Tennessee Legislature, Marston encouraged residents to join the fight by talking about the issue's importance with their neighbors and local officials, contacting their state representatives to ask for the broadband expansion and staying updated at tn4fiber.org, where they can also find relevant social media groups.

More than 800,000 Tennesseans are currently without access to high-speed broadband, according to the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, but the need is just as local as it is statewide. Bill Copeland, director of business intelligence at EPB, estimates that 8,674 households in the East Hamilton area — approximately 21,000 people — are outside the power utility's service area.

Chester Bankston, chairman of the Hamilton County Commission and representative for the East Hamilton area, said many outside of the currently served areas have voiced complaints to him.

"[Some] don't even have internet at home," said Bankston. "That's unheard of in today's world."

With more than 4,000 petition signatures from state residents hoping for broadband, Marston said he believes a growing number of people are beginning to understand the disadvantages of slow connectivity.

According to a study by the Department of Economic and Community Development, businesses are deciding where to locate their operations based on access to high-speed internet.

"So communities that can't offer that are at an immediate disadvantage on an economic level," Marston said, adding that those business placements would ultimately create jobs.

Another disadvantage Bankston said he saw when 200 people showed up for a community meeting about the issue is education. Many grade-school to university-level students are required to complete or submit assignments online, and subpar internet access means parents have had to take their children somewhere with Wi-Fi or use someone else's computer, Bankston said. Marston said EPB has spoken with parents who've even had to drive their children to the parking lot of a fast food restaurant so they could do homework.

"Comcast is OK with me, but I don't have young kids and young children in school anymore," Bankston said. "I'd need more than what I got [with Comcast's internet services]."

As state legislators gear up to potentially change Tennessee law, Bankston said he will continue to advocate for EPB's broadband expansion for those in Hamilton County.

"All they're trying to do is provide service for residents that don't have it and nobody else is offering," he said. "That state law's got to be changed. That's it. That's the key."

Email Myron Madden at mmadden@timesfreepress.com.

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