The long wooden pews were full. More than a hundred residents without high-speed Internet access at their homes were spilling into the hallway of the Bradley County Courthouse.
Many have resorted to running up cellular data plans at considerable expense. Private broadband companies authorized to operate in the county have declined to provide service to their homes and businesses in rural areas outside the Cleveland city limits.
“I can do this pretty quickly,” EPB President Harold DePriest told them earlier this month.
The Chattanooga-owned utility company wants to expand its fiber optic infrastructure into neighboring Bradley County. With a greenlight from the state, it would take about four months to start hooking up the first homes in this digital desert to one of the fastest Internet connections in the U.S.
But like other municipal broadband providers in Tennessee, the company’s proposed $60 million expansion is in the hands of the state Legislature. A 1999 law prevents it from operating outside the territory where it sells electricity.
The state of Tennessee is challenging an order from the Federal Communications Commission pre-empting the 1999 law. In a petition to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery said the regulatory agency has “unlawfully inserted itself” between the state and its municipalities.
Litigation could take months, if not years, to resolve. The underlying debate revolves around the FCC’s legal authority, state sovereignty, and the balance between public and private sectors.
Meanwhile, rural residents feel left behind in the 20th century. Around 28 percent of households in the counties surrounding EPB’s territory do not have access to high-speed broadband, according to data compiled by the FCC.
“What we’re looking for is a solution,” Joyce Coltrin said. “Everybody is trying to obscure the real problem.”
Coltrin runs a wholesale nursery on the wrong side of the line between Hamilton and Bradley counties. For 13 years, she has tried to get high-speed service at the small business.
She stays in touch with clients through a smartphone. The small screen and expensive data plan make it hard to communicate. She does business with landscapers who have grown accustomed to transferring large files and making quick purchasing decisions. For her, a lack of connectivity has led to a dwindling customer base.
“Once you’ve lost a customer, it’s really hard to regain them,” she said.
Eva VanHook’s family lives 10 miles outside the Cleveland city limits. Their only option is a satellite service that slows to the speed of dial-up once they hit a monthly data cap. The family of four met that threshold in the first seven days of February, she said.
Her children sometimes have to go to the library, a church or her place of business to use the Internet for homework.
“Our students are not having access to the tools that they need so that they can go to school the next day and achieve the goals that they have,” she said. “It’s just very difficult not to have those tools.”
State Rep. Kevin Brooks of Cleveland and state Sen. Janice Bowling of Tullahoma have proposed legislation that would remove the state restrictions.
“There are some people who aren’t asking for a gig,” Brooks said in reference to 1-gigabit-per-second Internet connections offered by municipal providers. “They’re just asking for something.”
Brooks said lawmakers continue to hear from supporters in the public utility industry, along with opponents from telecommunications companies.
But he said the most important group is the one made up of citizens and voters across Tennessee who can’t easily get online to complete school assignments, file their taxes, stay in touch with relatives or keep tabs on the decisions their elected officials make.
Telephone and cable companies derailed similar legislation last year, according to a report by the Center for Public Integrity. The Tennessee Municipal Electric Power Association, which supports the legislation, said private broadband providers are working to block the Bowling-Brooks bill this session.
AT&T and Comcast donated a combined $752,000 to state candidates during the 2013-2014 election cycle, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, called AT&T the “gorilla” of Nashville lobbyists. The company has 14 registered lobbyists, state records show, more than any other company or trade association.
“They’re extremely powerful,” he said. “They’re not somebody you want to take on unless you want to get bloodied.”
AT&T did not respond to written questions Monday. The company said in an earlier statement that although it is not opposed to municipal broadband providers, “they should be limited to locations where no private-sector broadband service is available and is not likely to be available in a reasonable timeframe.”
The Tennessee Cable Telecommunications Association referred questions to the National Cable and Telecommunications Association.
NCTA President Michael Powell said in a statement in January that connecting all Americans to critical broadband networks “should be a national priority, and that is why we have long supported the use of scarce government funding to support universal service in areas where private networks are not economically viable.”
Proponents say they are gaining traction. The bill is steadily picking up co-sponsors and private commitments of support.
In a short period of time, the Internet has gone from being viewed less as a luxury and more of a necessity for modern-day life, House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick said.
“I do think it has a lot better chance than it did just a few years ago,” he said.
The Tennessee Farm Bureau recently endorsed the bill. Farmers want to ensure their children have access to the same educational opportunities as those who live in urban areas, Executive Vice President Rhedona Rose said.
Agriculture, like many other industries, is being reshaped by technology. Farmers need to be able to upload crop data to the cloud and get back tailored “prescriptions” to address problems. With high-speed broadband access, they could download large equipment manuals and participate in webinars produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“It’s something that would take us into the 21st century,” Rose said.
VanHook appeared before the FCC in late February when it voted to pre-empt Tennessee’s restrictions on municipal broadband. When she got the invitation, she tried to book a hotel and flight from her home computer. She gave up after 30 minutes and called her dad for help.
“Where we live, there’s been no progress for 11 years-none,” she said. “Everybody else is progressing and getting further and further ahead.”