Rural Tennesseans could have gotten free internet but their legislators shut it down

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Instead, legislators agreed to pay Comcast and AT&T millions to provide abysmally slow internet.

CREDIT: Jeff Fusco/AP Images for Comcast

Given the choice between giving rural Tennessee residents free faster broadband internet from a government-run program and giving private telecom companies $45 million to build infrastructure for snail-speed access, state legislators chose the latter.

The Tennessee legislature passed the Broadband Accessibility Act of 2017 last week to help spur economic growth in rural areas of the state. The new bill lifts expansion restrictions for non-profit electricity co-ops, which provide free and reduced internet and video services, giving them financial incentives to bring access to rural customers. The bill also gives broadband companies such as Comcast and AT&T $30 million in grants and $15 million in tax credits to build infrastructure across the state.

But the bill undercuts its noble goal of bringing internet to the 34 percent of Tennesseans without access by slashing the broadband speed requirements to a crawl. In a late-added amendment, broadband providers are only required to provide download speeds of 10 megabits per second (mbps). That’s down from the previous 25 mbps threshold, which the FCC considers high-speed access. Upload speeds were also cut from 3 mbps to 1 mbps.

The average download speed in Tennessee is 41.8 mbps, according to the FCC’s 2016 report on measuring broadband.

Report suggests AT&T is blocking quality internet access in poor neighborhoods

The Broadband Accessibility Act also excludes government-run internet providers, such as Chattanooga-based electricity company EPB, which has been fighting for years to expand its services to rural Tennesseans. Last year, a federal court upheld the law restricting municipal broadband expansion, invalidating a 2015 FCC vote in EPB’s favor.

“Tennessee will literally be paying AT&T to provide a service 1000 times slower than what Chattanooga could provide without subsidies,” the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s director for community broadband initiatives, Christopher Mitchell, told Motherboard.

Legislators deliberated over whether the incentives would be enough to extend access to rural areas, but concerns over cost and government involvement prevailed. State Rep. Andy Holt (R) called the $45 million incentives a “drop in the bucket” compared to what it would cost to expand state-run internet access, and that the government shouldn’t intervene when it comes to internet access.

The bill’s passage fits into a bigger question about how far telecom policy should go to ensure equal access to the internet. Nearing the end of former President Barack Obama’s term, the UN declared internet disruption a human rights violation in 2015. Obama echoed the international body’s sentiments days later, saying, “The Internet is not a luxury, it is a necessity.”

But with a conservative-led FCC and a staunchly anti-regulatory White House agenda, government initiatives and aid to improve equitable internet access are likely to become more rare.

The FCC is currently gearing up to repeal net neutrality, a set of guidelines that works to guarantee everyone fair and equal internet access heavily favored by the tech industry and advocates, and overwhelmingly disliked by broadband companies. FCC head Ajit Pai voted against municipal broadband expansion and net neutrality in 2015.

Rural Tennesseans could have gotten free internet but their legislators shut it down was originally published in ThinkProgress on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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