ECD undertakes $250K study of rural broadband

Without taking a position, Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration has cautiously entered a hotly contested dispute over the appropriate governmental role in providing broadband Internet connections to rural areas of Tennessee.

Randy Boyd, commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development, said the state has contracted with two companies to “define the problem” of getting broadband access to rural areas, believing that it is crucial to expanding jobs and future development opportunities.

With the studies, Boyd said in an interview, “We are not going to propose a solution.” But he said that, as some point, the Department of Economic and Community Development and the Haslam administration may “take some leadership in developing the solution.” The solution is currently subject to a multifaceted dispute.

As things stand now, there’s a state law on the books prohibiting municipal electric utilities from providing broadband access outside their service areas and attempts in the state Legislature, the U.S. Congress and the court system to change or support the status quo.

A bill pending in the Legislature would repeal the state prohibition on government-affiliated expansion of broadband with proponents, such as sponsor Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, contending this would allow city-operated utilities to provide service in nearby underserved areas. The bill is adamantly opposed by private providers — AT&T is a leading example — as unfair government-backed competition and intrusion into the private business arena.

Chattanooga’s Electric Power Board, which has officially adopted the acronym EPB, successfully petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to expand its broadband service outside its municipal service area. But the FCC ruling allowing EPB expansion has been challenged in federal court, with state Attorney General Herbert Slatery joining industry representatives in declaring the FCC action violates state rights to decide such things within their own borders. There’s been no court ruling so far.

Legislation is also pending in Congress to overturn the FCC decision and block Chattanooga — along with a utility in Wilson, N.C. — from expanding their broadband service area. U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Brentwood, has been a leader in that effort.

Boyd said the companies contracted to determine the status of present online service in rural areas of Tennessee and the need for expansion — NEO Fiber and Strategic Network Group (SNG) — will use comprehensive online surveying. The form will require about 20 minutes of time to complete. Basically, he said, NEO will look at the “supply” side of what is available now and SNG will look at the “need.”

Department of Economic and Community Development spokesman Clint Brewer said that, specifically, $166,220 will be paid to SNG, while NEO will get $83,600 for its work.

“SNG will be conducting a statewide Broadband Assessment to help us understand access, adoption, and utilization levels across the state from businesses and households. SNG will they help us develop strategies to drive utilization of broadband so that businesses can grow and communities can thrive,” Brewer said in an email.

Haslam mentioned the pending survey in a speech to the Tennessee Farm Bureau members last week without giving any details.

“We have to address that some of our rural counties are struggling and agriculture provides more jobs in our rural counties than anything else,” Haslam said, adding that the “world is changing” and the state needs to have access to broadband and the resulting “educational opportunities that people need in rural counties to compete in what’s an increasingly competitive world.”

Nothing is expected from the surveying soon. Boyd said it probably won’t be completed until April, which is about the time that the 2016 legislative session will be ending.

Randy Boyd’s future: Boyd, frequently mentioned in state political circles as a potential candidate for governor in 2018, took the traditional approach to a question on that possibility in an interview — not interested now, but not saying absolutely no, either.

“I’m happy with the job I’ve got,” he said, adding that any such political discussion could distract from his efforts to bring new economic development opportunities to the state.

A primary concern in such an endeavor, Boyd said, is a “home election” consideration — his wife, Jenny, is cool toward the idea. But she is an apparent supporter of Boyd’s current campaign to become a Tennessee delegate to the Republican National Convention for Jeb Bush. She has joined him in donating to Bush’s campaign for the GOP nomination, according to the Federal Election Commission’s website.

Bush would be a “great president,” said Boyd.

Would he be a great governor?

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” he said