No profits, no worry, TN group says about municipal broadband

No profits, no worry, TN group says about municipal broadband

A group that says it fights for racial and social justice in East Tennessee now wants government-owned Internet to expand, even if taxpayers and ratepayers don’t get a return on their investment.

That group, known as the Sustainable and Equitable Agricultural Development, wants legislators to eliminate a state law restricting government-owned broadband networks from expanding beyond municipal lines. At the behest of S.E.A.D. members, several East Tennessee county commissioners have passed resolutions calling on the state’s General Assembly to do away with that law. Hamblen County commissioners are scheduled to vote on a similar resolution Thursday.

As reported, large portions of Hamblen are rural and lack broadband access, although Morristown, the county seat, has its own municipal broadband network through its public utility, Morristown Utility Systems.

Photo courtesy of the SEAD Task Force.

Photo courtesy of the SEAD Task Force.

SEAD spokesman William Isom, who lives in Hamblen County, told Tennessee Watchdog he thinks internet is infrastructure, much like roads and sewers.

Private internet service providers have said they would lose money by going into rural areas, but Isom said that’s irrelevant.

“It should not be a profit-driven service at this point,” Isom said.

“If you’re paving a road then you’re doing it expecting to get a turnaround on a road and that is how we are doing this — as an investment in public infrastructure.”

Hamblen County Executive Bill Brittain did not return a request for comment Wednesday, nor did any of the 14 county commissioners.

MUS Manager Jody Wigington did not return a request for comment.

According to an agenda packet S.E.A.D. left with Hamblen County commissioners, the group is affiliated with the Community Economic Development Network of East Tennessee.

CEDnet says it “serves as a network of social and racial justice non-profit organizations based in low and moderate-income communities in East Tennessee counties.”

S.E.A.D. says it has worked with officials in Newport, Campbell County and Hancock County, among others areas, to expand municipal broadband.

The group says it gets money from a Boulder, Colorado-based group called VOQAL. According to VOQAL’s website, that group gives money to nonprofits around the country.

Jody Wigington (photo courtesy Morristown Utility Systems)

Jody Wigington (photo courtesy Morristown Utility Systems)

As reported, Wigington told Hamblen County commissioners last March that expanding services into his county’s rural areas is expensive and not worth the labor.

“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; Morristown taxpayers are backing those bonds.

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.

It’s likely that carriers such as AT&T will introduce wireless technology to reach rural areas — just as they do now with smartphones, Harlan 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.

In a study, University of Colorado professor Ronald Rizzuto says municipal broadband networks regularly lose money.

Private Internet Service Providers, meanwhile, said they can’t afford to branch out into rural, underserved areas because pole attachment fees in Tennessee cost three times the national average.

Contact Christopher Butler at chris@tennesseewatchdog.org 

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