With Tennessee’s 2016 legislative session kicking off, lawmakers must resist the urge to retreat into their ideological camps and instead focus on what is best for our communities.
Our legislature did that in 1999 when it passed a law concerning government-owned broadband networks (GONs). Today that bipartisan law is under threat from an unelected, five-member regulatory committee in our nation’s capital.
Last year, the Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 to overturn Tennessee’s law, which sets limits on GONs within state boundaries. (The vote also overturned a similar law in North Carolina.) This law set reasonable limits on GONs to keep them from pushing out other providers, which would create a government monopoly, and from exposing taxpayers to too much financial risk.
Two of the commissioners on the FCC, both Republicans, voiced strong objections to this ruling, as did Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery III — a Republican — and North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper — a Democrat. Tennessee and North Carolina have both challenged the FCC’s ruling in federal court.
As members of different political parties, we also oppose this ruling and support this lawsuit. The two Republican FCC commissioners and AGs Slatery and Cooper argued the FCC’s ruling is an infringement on state sovereignty. We agree. Washington doesn’t have the right to overturn a bipartisan majority in our state.
Even if you believe that better access to broadband is necessary to compete in a 21st century economy — which we both do — it is clear that there is a vibrant private-sector market for broadband.
Tennessee is home to dozens of private broadband providers that have invested billions in our state. We must encourage these companies to invest even more, until every Tennessean, especially in inner-city and rural areas, has access to affordable, high-speed broadband.
Allowing GONs to take over more ground would have the opposite effect. We should be on the side of the small businesses like locally owned Internet service providers (ISPs) that have said they won’t expand service if Tennessee GONs like Chattanooga’s Electric Power Board are allowed to move beyond their state-mandated limits.
These small providers are better business models to sustain the necessary infrastructure and possess the ability and agility that are critical to innovate for tomorrow’s technological needs.
Our state is struggling with crumbling infrastructure, and we have asked state agencies to cut spending by 3.5 percent. At a time of fiscal strain, we should not spend millions of taxpayer dollars on broadband systems the private sector can provide.
The private sector is essential in closing the digital divide and opening the bridge to potential for millions of unserved Americans. We must promote diversity in broadband among both small Internet service providers and consumers by incentivizing educational and economic opportunities for women and minorities in the technology fields.
The experiences of municipal networks in our state have shown lawmakers were right to protect taxpayers against these risks.
For example, as the attorneys general of 12 states pointed out in their amicus brief supporting Tennessee and North Carolina’s challenge to the FCC’s February ruling, Memphis lost millions of taxpayer dollars in its GON, Memphis Networx.
The AGs argued: “To this day, the failure of Networx and its $28 million loss to Memphis utility ratepayers serves as context when Tennesseans discuss broadband.” Sadly, Memphis is not the only example of these GON’s losing millions in taxpayer dollars.
Tennessee must fight to keep our state’s municipal broadband law in place, and for full accountability of our tax dollars! Our elected, business and civic leadership must set the example by standing together in the best interest of the citizens of this state, regardless of political party affiliations.
State Sen. Mark Green is a Clarksville Republican. State Rep. G.A. Hardaway is a Memphis Democrat.