The general manager of a government-owned broadband network in Tennessee says expanding services into his county’s rural areas is expensive and not worth the labor.
At a meeting earlier this month, Morristown Utility Systems Manager Jody Wigington told Hamblen County commissioners just that.
Morristown is Hamblen’s county seat.
Municipal broadband networks may not operate outside their service boundaries, according to Tennessee law, but a state pilot program gives MUS the right to serve other areas of the county, Wigington told Tennessee Watchdog.
In a resolution, which was later voted down, county commissioners asked MUS to expand its broadband services into the county’s rural territories.
But, during a March 17 meeting, Wigington told commissioners why he couldn’t do it.
“It’s very cost prohibitive, and it’s very slow,” said Wigington, whose remarks were filmed and posted on former county Commissioner Linda Noe’s website.
“It needs to get large enough so investors feel they can get a return on investment.”
By that, Wigington said, poles outside his service territory aren’t compatible with his in terms of height and clearance.
Ratepayer money from MUS is paying off bonds needed to fund its municipal broadband — but Morristown taxpayers are backing those bonds.
County commissioners didn’t offer to pay MUS to expand into Hamblen’s rural areas.
Some houses in those areas are two to three miles apart, County Commissioner Rick Eldridge said.
Some of those rural folks, Eldridge went on, have — at the very least — satellite Internet.
As reported, Jonathan Harlan, CEO of the Jackson-based Aeneas Internet & Telephone Services, said less-costly solutions will, in the coming decade, become available through the free market.
Carriers such as AT&T will likely introduce wireless technology to reach rural areas — just as they do now with smartphones, Harlan said.
When asked about that method, Eldridge said “a private company can probably do it cheaper than a government entity.”
“It would make sense to do that, especially someone like AT&T, who has a big footprint anyway.”
Wigington said he has little faith the big telecoms would bring wireless technology anytime soon, and he favors adding municipal broadband in rural areas.
“Why put it off one more year, much less five more years?” Wigington asked.
“Utilities are willing to wait for a longer rate of return. We will put money back in our community, but the ones beholden to stockholders are looking for a quicker rate of return.”
If AT&T delivers, municipal broadband is ready to compete, Eldridge said.
Some private providers in Tennessee have said they won’t compete in areas with municipal broadband, increasing the risk of giving government networks a monopoly.
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