The TN grassroots group pushing for municipal broadband tied to public utilities, records show

The TN grassroots group pushing for municipal broadband tied to public utilities, records show

A website and Facebook page reportedly made up of rural folks pushing for expanded municipal broadband in Tennessee is overseen by Chattanooga’s Electric Power Board and other public utilities, IRS records show.

The website TN4Fiber is calling on lawmakers to abolish a state law restricting government-owned broadband networks from selling Internet access beyond municipal service lines.

The website’s Facebook page has 1,326 followers; its Twitter page has 139.

Harold DePriest (photo courtesy of EPB's official website)

Harold DePriest (photo courtesy of EPB’s official website)

According to the social media sites, TN4Fiber operates under the auspices of the Tennessee Fiber Optics Communities, a nonprofit that also wants to remove the law.

TN4Fiber’s hotline is the same as EPB’s customer service number.

According to TNFOC’s most recently available IRS 990, from 2014, Harold DePriest — also EPB’s CEO — chairs the nonprofit.

According to the 990, other members include:

• Vice-chairman Jody Wigington, also general manager of Morristown Utility Systems

• Secretary Brian Skelton, general manager for the Tullahoma Utilities Board

• Director Wes Kelly, director of Columbia’s Power & Water Systems

• Director Brian Taylor, also superintendent for Clarksville’s Department of Electricity

• Director Jim Ferrell, CEO of Jackson’s Energy Authority

TNFOC spent $82,000 on lobbying fees in 2014, according to IRS records.

University of Colorado professor Ronald Rizzuto, who has written studies saying municipal broadband networks lose money, said he wasn’t aware these men were behind what newspapers have called “a grassroots organization.”

“EPB’s agenda is to broaden itself and make it a regional and maybe even statewide network,” Rizzuto said.

Ronald Rizzuto (photo courtesy of the University of Colorado)

Ronald Rizzuto (photo courtesy of the University of Colorado)

“On the one hand, if they say they’re spending money to expand the interests of the broadband network, then that makes some sense. But, on the other hand, they’re using the money to try to compete with the private sector in an area where current state law says that’s an unfair game.”

EPB spokesman John Pless says the money for lobbyists came from neither taxpayers nor electric ratepayers.

“The seven members of Tennessee Fiber Optic Communities fund these lobbying efforts using revenue from their fiber optic business lines to pay dues,” Pless said.

Most of the aforementioned utility bosses failed to return requests for comment this week, but Kelly told Tennessee Watchdog he left TNFOC in 2012, and the 990 showing him as a director in 2014 is incorrect.

As reported, TN4Fiber in February sponsored a news conference at the state Capitol in Nashville, where several state legislators railed against AT&T for taking taxpayer money — $428 million — for the Connect America program.

AT&T officials reportedly never wanted the money and took it under protest.

Connect America uses revenue from phone bill surcharges to pay for rural Internet.

A bill from state Sens. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, and Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, which would have allowed municipal broadband to expand, failed in this year’s session.

Contact Christopher Butler at chris@tennesseewatchdog.org 

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