It was a David and Goliath battle, and Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, said there's no doubt that he was David in the scenario. It was him, voicing the will of his constituents, vs. big corporations.
Brooks was fighting for a broadband expansion that would have allowed EPB and other similar municipal providers in the state to expand to areas they aren't currently authorized to serve.
Initially, he hoped for expansion statewide, but after realizing he didn't have the votes needed to make that idea float, he proposed a scaled-down version of his legislation that would allow for a pilot program in Hamilton and Bradley counties.
Oral arguments are expected to begin today in the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in a case about the Federal Communications Commission's ability to override state laws that prevent local municipalities', such as EPB's, abilities to provide access outside their networks.
Last February, the FCC approved a petition from EPB and a North Carolina provider to preempt their states’ laws restricting the areas where they can provide Internet service.
The state of Tennessee filed an appeal disagreeing with that decision.
State leaders said that the FCC usurped "fundamental aspects of state sovereignty."
Essentially, that proposal would have allowed EPB to provide service to areas of Hamilton and Bradley counties where some residents don't have any Internet access and others have expensive, unreliable access.
"If we can't fix this statewide, give us a chance to fix this locally so we can prove that we will be well-accepted," he said, describing the idea behind the compromise legislation.
That measure died Tuesday in a 5–3 vote in the House Business and Utilities Subcommittee. Republican Rep. Marc Gravitt of East Ridge voted in favor of the measure.
Signal Mountain resident and Republican Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, who is a former AT&T executive and has also worked with Tennessee's Economic and Community Development division, voted against it.
Proponents of the expansion have said that it's an important step to boost job growth and economic development, as well as meet the state's education goals.
Brooks blamed lobbyists from Internet providers such as AT&T and Comcast for the loss. Based on anecdotal evidence, he estimated that about 25 lobbyists were working against him.
The Times Free Press' Andy Sher reported that a group of lobbyists and executives, including AT&T Tennessee President Joelle Phillips, were at the hearing Tuesday, watching Brooks on a video screen as he presented the legislation.
"They have a monopoly right now in their favor," he said. "To open the floodgates would hit their pocketbooks."
He said that allowing this measure would mean increased competition, which is good for everyone.
AT&T, Comcast and other providers have said that it isn't fair for them to compete against government entities such as EPB. When asked about that, Brooks said that AT&T took as much government money as EPB did.
Gov. Bill Haslam has said that the effort to expand EPB's high-speed Internet services won't solve the state's broadband accessibility problems and that it doesn't treat for-profit companies, like AT&T and Comcast, fairly.
A local Comcast spokeswoman declined to comment on the issue and suggested contacting the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. A spokesman there said the organization isn't involved in state political matters and had no public comment.
AT&T spokeswoman Alexia Poe said it's "incorrect to equate the common practice of government providing incentives to encourage private-sector behavior with the concept of direct government competition."
She also said via email:
The FCC’s Connect America Fund provides private-sector incentives specifically designed to encourage deployment to address a clearly defined and limited federal goal.
Generating significant amounts of public debt to sustain municipal networks is a different animal.
Taxpayer money should not be used to overbuild or compete with the private sector, which has a proven history of funding, building, operating and upgrading broadband networks.
AT&T has been clear that we aren’t opposed to municipal broadband when it is targeted to unserved areas, but none of the bills brought forward this week had any provision that would limit government expansion to unserved areas or even focus on those areas.
These "solutions" don’t match the problem of unserved areas.
EPB CEO Harold DePriest said that in the past year there's been a "groundswell of grassroots support" for expanding Internet connectivity. He's hopeful that leaders will approve expansion during the next legislative session "to benefit the thousands of Tennesseans who continue to wait for relief on this issue."
Ooltewah-area resident Bill Perry is one of the people waiting for relief. He uses a Verizon hot spot for Internet service and a satellite for television reception.
"Neither are as reliable as I would like, and they are both very costly," he said.
His sons, who are in college, live in East Ridge, and it wouldn't be practical for them to live at home because they couldn't do their schoolwork without more reliable, cost-efficient Internet.
And Perry can't work from home as much as he'd like because of the inefficient Internet access, he said.
"AT&T tries to tout their other programs, but those programs are services that aren't offered in my area," he said. "I can't get broadband; I can't even get a home phone in this address."
Between paying for his satellite dish, his hot spot and Internet for his sons in East Ridge, he said he spends nearly $500 a month for services he should be able to get for about $120.
Brooks said he keeps a stack of letters that is about 7 inches thick on his desk. They are letters from his constituents who are "begging, not just for better service, but any service."
He's heard from parents who have had to drive into the Gig City so they can access their child's grades or homework, he said.
"We'll continue to try and win this battle," he said. "It's a huge undertaking and it's an uphill battle, but I think we've proven we are not afraid ... We will live to fight again ... I hope to bring it back next year. We are not going to give up. I've got too many families [telling me], 'Don't stop.'"