The state legislature ended its 2016 regular session on April 22, and while TTA and its allies were successful in preventing any damaging bills that would have given municipal broadband providers unfair advantages around the state, there were two resolutions that stirred some concern for telcos near the end of the session.
When a legislator files a bill in the general assembly, that text can eventually become law in the state. When a legislator files a resolution, it’s more just a statement of opinion that lawmakers can support.
But while two filings this session — House Joint Resolution 482 by Rep John Forgety, R-Athens, and Senate Joint Resolution 510 by Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, — were only resolutions, they are still noteworthy for TTA members. Both resolutions were “taken off notice,” meaning that the resolution’s progress was stopped either in committee or in one house before being brought before the other house. The text of the filings, however, gives us some insight into legislators’ thoughts on broadband.
TTA agrees with the resolutions’ assertions that a lack of broadband is crippling to rural communities and that it’s imperative to bring high-speed Internet access to such areas.
Rep. Forgety’s resolution states that the “role of government in expanding broadband access is still uncertain, as the issue is being fiercely debated in this body, the United States Congress, and the federal judiciary.” It closes by urging “Internet service providers doing business in Tennessee to act with due speed and haste to expand broadband Internet access to our rural communities so that they may survive and thrive in a global economy.”
For TTA members, Sen. Bowling’s resolution is much more worrisome.
After discussing the importance of broadband access for rural Tennessee, the resolution, which was co-sponsored by Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, states:
“Be it resolved by the Senate … that the General Assembly supports increasing access to high-speed Internet connections in rural areas through an available source, including wireless, by using a combination of tax incentives, grants, or the removal of regulatory restrictions.”
Before the bill was taken off notice, it was amended to specify that removing the regulatory restrictions would be at the discretion of the General Assembly.
TTA’s position has always been that it is imperative to bring broadband to “unserved” areas and in some instances, a municipal network may be the best way to do that. However, TTA stands strongly against municipal providers being able to compete against TTA member telcos in areas arbitrarily deemed “underserved.” Sen. Bowling’s resolution would seem to suggest removing current regulations that limit the expansion of municipal broadband.
“Sen. Bowling had suggested in her resolution to expand broadband at all costs and get regulation out of the way,” said TTA executive director Levoy Knowles. “While the TTA is no fan of regulation that hinders business, we hope that Sen. Bowling and her fellow legislators understand that existing broadband providers invested millions of dollars in building networks under the current system and need to recoup costs. Allowing government-backed competitors to come in under a different set of rules will severely limit TTA members’ ability to repay construction loans and recoup costs of our investments.”
Sen. Bowling’s resolution sailed through the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee with 7 yes votes, and one abstaining. On the Senate floor, it received 29 “Yes” votes and zero “No” votes.
Rep. Forgety’s resolution never made it to the floor of the House, but was recommended for passage by the House Business and Utilities Committee.
Knowles said these resolutions are likely a harbinger of a brewing broadband battle in next year’s legislative session.
“The General Assembly is through for 2016, but this will be an important year to raise awareness of TTA’s position with legislators,” he said. “I encourage TTA members to stay in touch with their local legislators throughout the year and educate their customers about the consequences of municipal broadband expansion. It’s one thing for the TTA team to bring up our concerns in Nashville, but the message is even stronger if it comes from local residents within the legislators’ districts.”