Broadband expansion bill proponents blast AT&T

Proponents of rural broadband services on Wednesday demanded Tennessee lawmakers quit listening to for-profit telephone and cable giants and allow municipal electric power services to expand their lightning-fast Internet offerings to underserved areas, reports the Times-Free Press.

“We’re talking about AT&T,” Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, bluntly told a rally of business owners, families and local officials gathered in the state Capitol. “They’re the most powerful lobbying organization in this state by far.”

The bill has been opposed for years by AT&T, Comcast and other providers who say it’s unfair for them to have to compete with government entities like EPB. But EPB, as well as some lawmakers like Gardenhire, say if the free market isn’t providing the service, someone else should.

“Don’t fall for the argument that this is a free market versus government battle,” Gardenhire said. “It is not. AT&T is the villain here, and so are the other people and cable.”

…Outside the state Capitol’s first-floor old Supreme Court room was a placard charging AT&T in Tennessee received $156 million from an Obama administration program aimed at expanding access to broadband. At the same time, Gardenhire said, they’re opposing governmental entities like EPB expanding.

AT&T spokesman Daniel Hayes said in an email “it is incorrect to equate the common practice of government providing incentives to encourage private-sector behavior with the concept of direct government competition.”

He said the Federal Communication Commission’s Connect America Fund provides private-sector incentives “specifically designed to encourage deployment to address a clearly defined and limited federal goal.

“Generating significant amounts of public debt to sustain municipal networks is a different animal,” Hayes added. “Taxpayer money should not be used to over-build or compete with the private sector, which has a proven history of funding, building, operating and upgrading broadband networks. Policies that discourage private-sector investment put at risk the world-class broadband infrastructure American consumers deserve and enjoy today.”