There’re the old myths: the free market, the Invisible Hand, free enterprise, competition equals better products, and so forth. Of course, when those shibboleths don’t translate as they should in real life, there is often a turn toward “investing” in politicians and political parties, advertising to grab and ensure a market and, well, just plain old whining. And that’s what seems to be happening in Chattanooga as a public utility confronts a corporate biggie.
EPB, or the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga, has been a stunning success. Set up as a nonprofit by the city of Chattanooga almost 80 years ago (1935), EPB today serves almost 170,000 customers in Chattanooga and some surrounding areas. EPB is 100% fiber-optic, has developed a Smart Grid and was “the first company in the United States to offer one Gbit/s high speed internet, over 200 times faster than the national average.”
In 2013, EPB received the POWER Smart Grid award “for two main reasons. The build-out of Chattanooga’s Smart Grid benefits the community by saving more than $50 million annually . . . through a 60 percent reduction in power outages” and for “creating a new business.” EPB offers “Internet, television and telephone service to all electric power customers in its 600 square mile area,” providing revenue to the benefit of its customers and their communities. EPB also received the 2013 Government Recycler of the Year award from the Tennessee Recycling Coalition.
People nearby, but outside EPB’s 600 square mile service area, want to become EPB customers. And what’s to hold them back? After all, the FCC is charged under section 706(a) of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 “to implement ‘measures that promote competition in the local telecommunications market or other regulating methods that remove barriers to infrastructure investment.’”
Well, you see, in Tennessee, as in about 20 other states, they have a law “that has frozen the expansion of the fastest internet in the Western Hemisphere.” And that’s not all. US Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), ever-vigilant about these things, crafted a bill that “would freeze the FCC’s funding if it attempts to overturn state prohibitions on the expansion of municipal broadband.” Blackburn’s bill was approved 223-200.
While free enterprise usually merits a hearty rah-rah in certain circles, competition between for-profit entities and publicly-owned ones seems to be a no-no, at least to Rep Blackburn and her crowd when it comes to EPB. In contrast, another TN Representative—and Republican—Chuck Fleischmann supports EPB’s efforts to expand into communities where services don’t exist or are substandard. And Marion County, adjacent to EPB’s home county of Hamilton, is so eager to become a customer that Marion County leaders are willing to “consider supporting legislation to make that legal.” One Marion County town, Kimball, is now officially on board “requesting state legislators to revisit the law.”
But what about the competition? Time-Warner was in the area, but it “has widespread outages”—and it’s in the process of being gobbled up by Comcast Corp anyway. Meanwhile, Comcast and AT&T “have contributed more than $215,000 to state lawmakers” in Tennessee this election cycle alone. Comcast’s contribution in TN is said to surpass “totals given in any other state.”
Comcast offered up this gem in defense of keeping EPB out: “In general, cities have extensive infrastructure needs like roads, bridges and schools, and we think especially in times of fiscal trade offs that tax payer money should be focused on those needs rather than competing with the private sector.” Comcast failed to mention the lack of investment by private corporations in “the expensive infrastructure it takes to serve relatively few customers in rural communities.” In the past, government was supposed to get out of the way; nowadays, at least in this instance, private corporations want the government to get in the way and stop public entities.