Chattanooga, Tennessee’s Electric Power Board (EPB) has become a high-profile voice in the innovative yet controversial municipal broadband movement.
Because it was a newcomer in 2010, EPB started with a clean network slate and offered speeds ranging from 50 Mbps up to 1 Gbps over a fiber to the home (FTTH) network.
Initially offering its 1 Gbps FTTH service for $300, EPB soon followed Google Fiber’s $70 pricing model. But if 1 Gbps isn’t fast enough, EPB also offers 10 Gbps for $299 a month.
Interestingly, EPB’s presence has clearly influenced competitors like Comcast, which eventually responded with a 2-gigabit internet service in Chattanooga. One drawback of Comcast’s FTTH-based Gigabit Pro is consumers have to shell out additional funds for a custom installation.
Similar to other local power companies like Massachusetts-based Concord Power and Light, EPB’s FTTH network also serves as a platform to monitor its electric power grid. EPB has installed “automated intellirupters” that use the fiber network to communicate with EPB to reroute power around damage caused by an event like a storm severing a power line, for example.
Being a municipal provider, EPB has had to deal with protests from AT&T and Comcast—two providers that are unhappy a government-run entity is invading their turf after decades of being the only providers in town.
A key issue for EPB is that it can’t extend service to nearby areas like Tennessee’s Bradley County that want fiber service because of state laws that place restrictions on municipal broadband. Tennessee is not alone. Today, there are about 20 states that have similar laws on the books.
EPB did get a glimmer of regulatory hope in 2015. Under the leadership of former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, the regulator voted to preempt state laws in North Carolina and Tennessee governing municipally-run broadband companies in 2015. The FCC’s order permitted communities to choose whether or not to build their own networks based on their own missions and the ability to expand services to nearby communities. Interestingly, AT&T has refused to make upgrades to provide decent broadband speeds.
However, Wheeler’s ruling was short lived as it was overturned by a Sixth Circuit panel in August 2016. The court said in its decision that the FCC’s application of Section 706 of the 1996 Telecom Act is not enough to overturn state law, adding that there’s no federal statute or FCC regulation that “requires the municipalities to expand or otherwise to act in contravention of the preempted state statutory provisions."
Additional FCC action on municipal broadband laws is unlikely. Ajit Pai, a Republican commissioner who was opposed to the FCC’s 2015 municipal broadband decision, became the FCC chairman in January.
EPB has not entirely given up on trying the idea of expanding its network into nearby communities. In the fall of 2016, EPB began working with six other communities in Tennessee that have built out similar FTTH networks. These communities have continued to petition Chattanooga’s state general assembly to get the law changed.
The upshot: Municipal broadband is a gamble in terms of costs and battling incumbents, but as more communities have become fed up with slower internet speeds the concept has grown in popularity. EPB’s effort to equip its community with broadband—one that ignited a vibrant startup business community throughout Chattanooga—is something that other municipalities could look to when considering launching a similar initiative.