Area officials praised the Federal Communications Commission vote allowing EPB to offer its fiber optic Internet service to neighboring rural communities, but they cautioned that the threat of litigation could thwart the public utility’s expansion in the immediate future.

The decision in Washington, D.C., Thursday morning preempts a Tennessee law limiting where municipal broadband providers can operate. The FCC adopted a stance that the 1999 law is a barrier to “broadband deployment, investment and competition.”

Since the launch of its smart grid, EPB has become acutely aware of the number of neighboring communities that do not have access to “acceptable” broadband service, Chairman Joe Ferguson said in an afternoon press conference.

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The FCC “has agreed that those barriers should come down, that we should be able to deal with individuals and communities that adjoin our territory and take our broadband service out to them,” he said.

EPB is reviewing technical, financial and legal issues before deciding how to expand its services, the company said in a statement. In the interim, it’s asking that elected officials from interested communities make formal requests for consideration.

“Many neighbors have been struggling with the economic and educational disadvantages of not having access to broadband services,” Harold DePriest, president and CEO, said in a news release. “We are looking for the quickest path forward to help those neighbors join the 21st-century information economy.”

There are still unincorporated areas of Hamilton County with limited Internet access, Mayor Jim Coppinger said. Two of those areas, Birchwood and Georgetown, share borders with neighboring counties. Although most residents have access, “there are thousands of homes and businesses out there that do not,” he said.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said removing “artificial barriers” will bolster the region and improve the quality of life in the city. Internet access is the basis for economic development, educational opportunity and equity, he said.

“Broadband, now, is infrastructure that everyone needs,” he said.

In addition to parts of Hamilton County, the first area EPB would likely expand into is the southwest corner of Bradley County, where a number of residents have petitioned the FCC and lawmakers to reverse the state law.

“We certainly have heard from those communities,” Chief Operating Officer David Wade said. “And we will serve where it is technically and financially feasible.”

Despite Thursday’s decision, local officials worry that other telecommunications companies might sue the FCC to block the decision. EPB has battled AT&T and Comcast since the 1990s when it first began exploring what eventually became its fiber optic network.

EPB is urging state lawmakers to adopt legislation that would repeal the Tennessee law and help settle legal questions around an expansion.

“We still have to change the way the law is written in Tennessee to make everything line up,” state Rep. Kevin Brooks said.

He hopes the bill he’s sponsoring with state Sen. Janice Bowling will be supported by lawmakers from other rural districts.

During the FCC’s deliberations, two dissenting commissioners argued that the federal agency was attempting to undermine state laws in Tennessee and North Carolina. The city of Wilson, North Carolina, filed a similar petition with the FCC.

“I’ve always viewed this as a battle between local and state governments,” said Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, Republican of Tennessee’s 3rd Congressional District. “And I’ve always felt that government that’s closest to the people, specifically local government, is the best government.”

Students in underserved rural areas should have the same opportunities as those in urban centers, he said. The same goes for business owners.

Joyce Coltrin and about 160 Bradley County residents started a grassroots effort to get the state’s law overturned. For their first meeting, she distributed fliers to get the word out in the digitally disconnected community.

“It’s really hard to organize without the Internet,” she said.

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