On the ‘armies of lobbyists, politicians and voters’ fighting over Chattanooga’s high-speed, broadband system

The Chattanooga TFP takes a long look at the controversy revolving around the city-owned Electric Power Board’s request that the Federal Communications Commission overrule a state law so that EPB can expand its fiber-optic service beyond current borders.

Access to high-speed broadband Internet for Coltrin and thousands like her is currently being argued by armies of lobbyists, politicians and voters, who have formed battle lines in the debate over the expansion of Chattanooga’s gigabit network, slinging their final arrows as the FCC’s comment period on EPB’s petition draws to a close (Friday).

Comcast, AT&T and a host of politicians in Nashville and Washington, D.C., have moved to stop what they see as a federal usurpation of a state’s right to regulate telecommunications, while Chattanooga residents and broadband proponents across the country say they’re simply supporting the rights of cities to determine their own broadband future.

The debate pits mayors against legislators, counties against states and Republicans against Republicans, as Tennessee’s ruling party faces a split within its own ranks and among constituents who say access to broadband should transcend petty politics.

Small-government conservatives face a choice to either support a federal agency in its effort to free local citizens from state shackles, or side with state legislatures against what some see as federal overreach into their affairs.

For Coltrin, herself a Republican, the debate is simply a civil rights issue.

“We’d still have slavery if they states could make any laws they wanted to,” she said. “We certainly would still have segregation.”

Caught in the middle is the FCC, which says it simply wants to enforce the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a law that ordered the agency to eliminate barriers to entry for broadband access. Tom Wheeler, the former cable industry lobbyist who now serves as chairman of the FCC, has praised Chattanooga as the “poster child for the benefits of community broadband networks, and also a prime example of the efforts to restrict them,” though he hasn’t said how he’ll vote.

The outcome is already in doubt. An amendment to an appropriations bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the Republican congresswoman for Tennessee’s seventh district, would freeze the FCC’s funding if it attempts to overturn state prohibitions on the expansion of municipal broadband.

“We don’t need unelected bureaucrats in Washington telling our states what they can and can’t do with respect to protecting their limited taxpayer dollars and private enterprises,” Blackburn said of the measure, which was approved by a vote of 223-200.

But U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., himself a strong supporter of states’ rights, opposes Blackburn’s measure and said he had no plans to back down from his support of EPB’s expansion into underserved communities.

“At the most rudimentary level, I would say that this is a matter of local versus state government,” he said. “The further you get away from local in terms of decision making, the further it gets away from your constituents.”

Note: The National Governors Association (presumably with the approval of Gov. Bill Haslam) weighed in Friday by filing comments with the FCC urging the agency to allow the state law to stand and reject EPB’s request, reports The Hill.