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EPB plans to keep fighting to bring broadband Internet to areas that want it yet can't get it -- but it could take years for that service to arrive.
The city-owned utility's commitment comes despite a Tennessee bill that would have helped with expansion but wound up withering this week for lack of support from state lawmakers. And the state's chief attorney filed a petition last month to overturn a recent federal decision that allowed for EPB's expansion.
"We're not giving up and we're not backing off," said Harold DePriest, president and CEO of EPB. "We intend to be back in front of the state Legislature next year."
Telecommunications companies such as AT&T and Comcast have opposed EPB's expansion efforts. AT&T has stressed that it's not opposed to municipal broadband networks in general. But it doesn't believe such networks should be in places where private-sector broadband service is available or might be in the near future.
DePriest said he was not surprised that a state bill got put on hold until early 2016: "We felt like we had the votes in the House; it was real iffy in the Senate."
Of EPB's 63,000 or so Internet customers, 5,265 subscribe to its 1-gigabit-per-second service, the first to have been offered in the Western Hemisphere.
The utility provides service to most of Hamilton County, including Chattanooga, and parts of eight other counties in Tennessee and Georgia. Those were the only places it could provide Internet service under state laws that restricted it to its electric-system footprint -- until the Federal Communications Commission in late February ruled it could move beyond it.
But there are windows of time to formally oppose the ruling. EPB doesn't want to put money into expansion until it's sure a federal judge won't rule against the FCC decision.
"That puts a question mark on the ability to expand," DePriest said. "The issue is that there are going to wind up being a lot of lawsuits that could wind up in courts. Something could break loose, or they could end up in court for years."
Petitions for reconsideration of the FCC decision can be filed through April 13. None has yet been submitted. Appeals can be filed through May 11. So far, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery has filed a suit, saying essentially that the FCC wrongly inserted itself into a state matter. That happened in late March.
Still, EPB officials believe that the FCC "will prevail in the long run," DePriest said.
EPB is prepared to move into a small area of southern Bradley County to serve about 1,000 homes using some of its existing equipment. After that, it expects to move into the part of Hamilton County it doesn't serve -- south of the river and north of Collegedale -- which includes about 9,000 homes and businesses, a larger project.
None of that will happen, though, until EPB feels "legally free" to do so, DePriest said.
Comcast and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association in Washington, D.C., declined to comment Thursday on the state bill's delay or the recent lawsuit against the FCC.
A few weeks ago, Comcast spokeswoman Sara Jo Houghland Walker said her company has "an excellent track record for staying at the technology forefront and delivering fast speeds and innovative products to a large majority of homes and businesses in Hamilton County."
Comcast delivers to 99 percent of Hamilton County with phone, cable, home security, high-speed Internet and Wi-Fi service, she said, adding that the company has had 14 residential speed increases in the last 13 years.
"We offer the fastest speeds to the most homes across the entire state of Tennessee," Walker said.
Contact staff writer Mitra Malek at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6406. Follow her on Twitter @MitraMalek.