TN legislators who support taxpayer-backed Internet getting tough with AT&T

TN legislators who support taxpayer-backed Internet getting tough with AT&T

Several Tennessee legislators looking to expand municipal broadband networks are attacking AT&T for taking $428 million from the Federal Communications Commission — even though company officials reportedly never wanted it.

According to, AT&T took the money — under protest — for a program called Connect America, which uses revenue from phone bill surcharges to pay for rural Internet.

Tennessee law says a government-owned Internet network, such as you would find at a public utility in Tullahoma or Chattanooga, can’t expand beyond municipal boundaries.

But a bill from state Sens. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, and Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, would eliminate that law.

Bowling has said her legislation is designed to bring broadband to people in rural areas who either have no Internet or are still using dial-up.

AT&T and other private Internet Service Providers say they’re working to expand into rural areas and don’t want to compete against a taxpayer-backed utility.

Janice Bowling (photo courtesy of the Tennessee General Assembly's website)

Janice Bowling (photo courtesy of the Tennessee General Assembly’s website)

Gardenhire, at a news conference earlier this month hosted by the Tennessee Municipal Electric Power Association and the Tennessee Fiber Optic Community, said AT&T and other ISP’s aren’t competing in a pure free-market system. To drive home his point, Gardenhire posed for a photo that included a symbolic check — from the feds payable to AT&T — and posted it on his Facebook page.

Gardenhire said he did not know who paid for the oversize check or how much it cost.

That AT&T didn’t willingly take the money makes no difference, Gardenhire told Tennessee Watchdog.

“AT&T has more government work, and they get more work out of the government than most everybody else,” said Gardenhire, who didn’t offer specific examples.

“What did the government have on them to force them to take $400 million? There must have been a whole lot more money somewhere else that they were beholden to in order to be forced to take that money.”

AT&T is expanding its U-Verse service to more than 4,200 locations in rural Meigs, McMinn and Cocke counties, spokesman Daniel Hayes said in an emailed statement

“It is incorrect to equate the common practice of government providing incentives to encourage private sector behavior with the concept of direct government competition,” Hayes said.

“Generating significant amounts of public debt to sustain municipal networks is a different animal. 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.”

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