by Bill Snyder

Why AT&T’s attempt to kill municipal broadband in Tenn. matters to all Americans

Feb 05, 2016
BroadbandCarriersConsumer Electronics

The city-owned broadband network in Chattanooga, Tenn., is one of the fastest in the United States, but AT&T is lobbying to block network expansion and ensure other cities throughout the country don't follow Chattanooga's lead.

att AT&T logo american flag
Credit: REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Chattanooga, Tenn., is more than 2,400 miles from Silicon Valley, but residents of the Southern city have access to broadband that’s 50 times faster than the majority of Internet connections in technology’s capital. Why, you ask? Chattanooga’s municipally owned electric utility, EPB, provides its broadband Internet.

Chattanooga’s neighbors would like to set up a similar arrangement, but AT&T, which delivers much slower broadband in the area — when it delivers at all — is trying to block the plan, saying the government should not compete with private enterprise.

Angry Tennessee consumers and legislators aren’t backing down. “Don’t fall for the argument that this is a free market versus government battle. It is not. AT&T is the villain here, and so are the other people and cable,” said Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-Tenn.) at a community rally, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

What AT&T’s actions in Tenn. mean to U.S. consumers

If this were simply a local issue, few people outside of Tennessee would care. But it’s not. The United States lags far behind most of the civilized world when it comes to high-speed broadband Internet deployments, in large part because so little competition exists in the market. Companies such as AT&T and Comcast have started to supply faster broadband in areas where rivals, including Google, set up shop and offered similar service for less money. However, in areas where big ISPs have the market to themselves, consumers often get stuck in the Web’s slow lane.

AT&T’s attempt to block a publicly owned company such as EPB from providing a service that it refuses to supply sure seems like an egregious abuse of corporate power. In fact, the FCC agrees, and it ruled that state laws that forbid municipalities from providing their own broadband are no longer legal. Not surprisingly, the big ISPs took issue with this ruling and then took the FCC to court, but the outcome won’t be known for some time. Meanwhile, AT&T gets to play the bully.

You might think this is a partisan issue, but it is not — at least not in Tennessee. Gardenhire supports a bill (introduced by another Republican legislator) that would allow EPB to provide broadband outside of its immediate service area. The state legislature reviewed the issue a number of times already, but it never passed. It’s unclear whether or not the bill has the support needed for approval this year.

[Related News Analysis: Why 6 Republican senators think you don’t need faster broadband]

AT&T spokesperson Daniel Hayes commented on the issue in the Chatanooga Times Free Press. “Taxpayer money should not be used to over-build or compete with the private sector, which has a proven history of funding, building, operating, and upgrading broadband networks,” Hayes said. “Policies that discourage private-sector investment put at risk the world-class broadband infrastructure American consumers deserve and enjoy today.”

In an effort to quell additional related movements, AT&T and other ISPs make generous contributions to state legislators who oppose municipal broadband. Hopefully, the FCC wins its day in court, so big ISPs are forced to provide better service, or face serious competition from a new sort of rival.