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Broadband Equity Defines the Future of Communities

High-speed connectivity is no longer negotiable.

Editor’s note: Ron Littlefield was mayor of Chattanooga when the city's municipally owned Electric Power Board built the fiber optic system to provide gigabit connectivity to an area covering more than 650 square miles. It put Chattanooga on the world map as a leader in providing a new class of digital infrastructure. Littlefield characterized the city’s achievement as “like being the first city to have fire” – a line subsequently picked up and repeated by President Obama.
Public broadband offers communities options to extend high-speed connectivity to un- or underserved constituents. At least it did.

But now the U.S. Court of Appeals has put a speed bump squarely in the middle of the so-called information super highway with its ruling that the FCC cannot block states from setting limits on municipal broadband expansion. Cities in Tennessee and North Carolina had previously received backing from the FCC to expand their fiber optic networks beyond their traditional service boundaries.

It's an odd situation, especially in Tennessee as Chattanooga has received international acclaim for providing its citizens with access to one of the fastest broadband systems in the world for the last five years – and it’s only getting faster. As of 2015, the city’s Electric Power Board (EPB) began offering the world’s first community-wide 10 Gbps internet service. Beyond bragging rights, Chattanooga’s commitment to connectivity is a successful business venture that has defied dire predictions by critics.

Given the city’s success, one might wonder why Tennessee's attorney general would try to stop municipal broadband from advancing into areas starving for this new type of infrastructure. Not surprisingly, the answer might be politics.

Backup for this theory comes from Tennessee’s latest legislative session, where attempts were made to repeal the sections of state law that blocked the expansion of municipal broadband. Leading the campaign to remove these barriers were two unlikely champions: State Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga and State Rep. Kevin Brooks of Cleveland, Tenn. – both highly conservative members of the Republican Party. Gardenhire represents the area presently served by EPB's gigabit fiber and Brooks hails from a district hoping to benefit from broadband expansion.

I asked Sen. Gardenhire what happened in the legislature, where their efforts were defeated. "I have never seen such a push," he said. “I counted 42 lobbyists – and that's just for AT&T.”

I diplomatically pointed out that it's unusual for conservative members of the Republican Party to take a position favoring government over private enterprise.

“They (the conventional carriers) have voluntarily chosen not to do it,” said Brooks. “Therefore, we are limiting free enterprise. If they were really and truly interested in equal access, they wouldn't object.” Regarding the private vs. public issue, he said, "I tell them that they have to answer to their stockholders and owners. My stockholders are the people who elected me to office and they are telling me that they want better access to broadband.”

It’s easy to be passionate because broadband is a big deal, particularly to rural communities that depend on internet connectivity to improve education and economic development.

One of these communities is Mifflin County, located hundreds of miles from Tennessee and North Carolina in the mountains of central Pennsylvania. With a population of 46,600 people, Mifflin County is a quaint Appalachian community far removed from the political wrestling matches taking place in the South. But decisions like that of the U.S. Court of Appeals matters to places like Mifflin County because it’s currently losing prized outreach campus facilities that have been its critical link to Penn State for the past 15 years.

In response to increasing costs of maintaining conventional teaching facilities and faculty in rented space away from the university's main campus, the school recently announced plans to close remote operations and offer such courses exclusively online. The unexpected problem was Mifflin’s lackluster internet service, which ranges from nonexistent to dial-up to only satisfactory. Closure of the outreach campus facilities precipitated something of a rude awakening and an ambitious – if belated – reaction by the county’s citizens. In July, 40 representatives of local government and private business attended a county Internet Summit to determine next steps in expanding broadband access. The meeting was an acknowledgement that internet access is increasingly non-negotiable and an issue the directly determines a community’s future. It isn’t frivolous or optional.

“People have to realize that broadband is critical infrastructure the same as roads or sewers,” says Tennessee’s Rep. Brooks. There will soon come a time – if it’s not already here – when there will be no development without access to broadband.” And Brooks worries about Tennessee’s future generation as well. “I am told that our local schools have good broadband service, and I tell them, ‘but that only takes care of students from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. I’m worried about 3 p.m. to 8 a.m. the next morning when students are at home and unable to access the internet as needed to properly do their homework.’”

Against this backdrop, Alphabet, the new holding company previously known as Google, has announced that it is experimenting with using a new generation of Wi-Fi to expand public access to broadband at gigabit speeds. Through its Google subsidiary the company is proposing to use new targeted technology as a means to provide the "last mile" linkage that is proving to be more expensive than anticipated. The company is first testing the system using its existing network in Kansas City, but has not ruled out contracting to use the fiber grid already installed by local utilities to more quickly extend coverage to hard-to-reach customers. Thus, that fiber optic base is still essential. Given this new option, perhaps partnerships between public utilities and private enterprise will emerge that will make robust broadband more universally available in a much shorter period of time. It's a question of innovation.

The moral of this story in the words of Bob Dylan: 
The slow one now Will later be fast
As the present now Will later be past
The order is Rapidly fadin'
And the first one now Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'.

And, we might add, changing faster than ever at gigabit speed!   
Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.
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