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FCC Could Allow EPB to Expand Gigabit Internet Service


UPDATE 2/26 12:08 pm: By a 3-2 vote, the FCC today approved EPB's petition to expand its high-speed Internet service, as well as a similar petition filed in North Carolina by the city of Wilson.  In a news release, the FCC said:

"The Federal Communications Commission today opened the door for two community broadband providers to expand service, preempting state laws in Tennessee and North Carolina that prevented these and similar broadband providers in the two states from meeting local demand for broadband service.

"A Memorandum Opinion and Order adopted by the Commission finds that provisions of the laws in North Carolina and Tennessee are barriers to broadband deployment, investment and competition, and conflict with the FCC’s mandate to promote these goals. The state laws had effectively prevented the cities from expanding broadband service outside their current footprints despite numerous requests from neighboring unserved and underserved communities."

Read the FCC's news release here.

The original story continues below.

On February 26th, the FCC is expected to rule on whether Chattanooga’s EPB will be allowed to expand its high-speed gigabit Internet service beyond EPB's current coverage area.  Tennessee state law prohibits such an expansion, but EPB has asked the FCC to invalidate that law.

Christopher Mitchell joins us to discuss the situation.  He’s the Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and he runs Muninetworks.org, an online clearinghouse of information about community broadband.

In the interview, Mitchell discusses how this situation (and a similar one in Wilson, North Carolina) could have national implications for publicly-owned broadband networks.

"This decision that we're going to see on Thursday is the first step we're going to see toward increasing freedom for communities to build those networks," Mitchell says.  Right now, about twenty states restrict their cities' authority to build or expand publicly-owned broadband services.


In its petition to the FCC, EPB said it regularly receives requests "from citizens and businesses located outside EPB’s electric service territory, for access to advanced telecommunication capabilities and services."

Right now, EPB's high-speed Internet service is available only in the same places where it provides electric power service.  That includes most of Hamilton County; parts of Bledsoe, Bradley, Marion, Rhea and Sequatchie; as well as parts of Catoosa, Dade, Walker in North Georgia.

If the FCC allows EPB to expand, they plan to go only to "communities that have asked us to come to them," according to Danna Bailey, EPB's V.P. of Corporate Communications.

"Today, we have received requests from folks in Bradley, Marion, Rhea and McMinn counties to name a few," Bailey wrote in an e-mail to WUTC.  "For each community wanting us to bring service, we’ll prepare a business plan, discuss with the community, and expand where it makes business sense."

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler supports the proposed expansion.

"Tennessee is one of many states that have placed limits on the deployment of community networks," Wheeler wrote on the official FCC blog.  "Tennessee’s law is restricting Chattanooga from expanding its network’s footprint, inhibiting further growth...  If the people, acting through their elected local governments, want to pursue competitive community broadband, they shouldn’t be stopped by state laws promoted by cable and telephone companies that don’t want that competition."


U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn represents the 7th District of Tennessee.  She's against the FCC overturning Tennessee state law.

"I strongly believe in States’ rights," she wrote last year in a statement on her Web site.  "That’s why I have found it deeply troubling that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has repeatedly stated this past year that he intends to pre-empt states’ rights when it comes to the role of state policy over municipal broadband.

“Chairman Wheeler’s statements pose a direct challenge on the constitutionality of states’ sovereign functions. It wrongly assumes Washington knows what is best and ignores the fact that the right answer doesn’t always come from the top-down.”


Christopher Mitchell expects the FCC to rule in favor of EPB's proposed expansion, but also says the conflict is far from over.

"This dispute will definitely continue," Mitchell said.  "There will be an appeal.  The only question, I think, is which court will hear it."