Tag Archives: telecommunications

House votes to enhance penalty for texting while driving

The state House narrowly approved a bill Monday night to increase the penalty for texting and driving in Tennessee. The Senate is scheduled to consider the bill Wednesday.

From the Commercial Appeal:

Under current Tennessee law, a driver using a hand-held mobile phone or personal digital assistant to transmit or read a written message while his or her vehicle is in motion is considered a “non-moving” violation subject to a fine of up to $50 and court costs of up to $10. Using a hands-free function to text is not considered a violation of the law.

House Bill 1511, by Rep. Ron Lollar, R-Bartlett, would make texting while driving a moving violation with the same level of fine but with the addition of four points against a driver’s record and mandatory attendance and completion of a driver’s education course. The points are the same those assessed for careless or negligent driving. The state suspends the driver’s license of drivers who amass 12 points a year.

Points may also result in an increase in the driver’s insurance premium.

The bill won approval on a 51-36 vote — only one vote more than the 50 required for passage in the 99-member House.

State wins $13M tax fight with Verizon Wireless

News release from Administrative Office of the Courts
Nashville, Tenn. – The Tennessee Supreme Court has upheld a decision by the Tennessee Department of Revenue to impose a tax variance on the parent company of Verizon Wireless. The Court held that the Commissioner of Revenue was within his authority to impose the variance, in order to keep the company from avoiding paying Tennessee franchise and excise taxes on over a billion dollars in revenue from sales to Tennessee customers.

The lawsuit was filed by Vodafone Americas Holdings, Inc., a multistate wireless telecommunications corporation, and its subsidiaries (Vodafone), doing business throughout the United States as Verizon Wireless.

From 2000-2006, Vodafone filed Tennessee franchise and excise tax returns and paid taxes totaling more than $13 million on the revenues Vodafone received for services provided to its Tennessee customers. In 2007, Vodafone filed a lawsuit asking the trial court to require the Department of Revenue to refund nearly all of the Tennessee franchise and excise taxes Vodafone had paid for the years 2002 through 2006. Vodafone claimed that, if the apportionment formula in Tennessee’s franchise and excise tax statutes were applied correctly, Vodafone would owe virtually no taxes on its sales receipts for cell phone services provided to Tennessee customers, receipts that totaled over a billion dollars in revenue to Vodafone.
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Charter offers free cable TV time to legislators

Less than 24 hours after a Tennessee House panel killed a municipal broadband expansion bill opposed by the cable industry, Charter Communications offered state lawmakers a chance to star in their very own “public service announcements” aimed at cable-watching constituents, reports the Times-Free Press.

In his invitation, Nick Pavlis, investor-owned Charter’s director of government affairs in Tennessee, says that “as a leading broadband communications provider and cable operator serving customers in Tennessee, Charter is committed to providing compelling public affairs programming and public service announcements.”

“We hope you will take advantage of this opportunity to speak directly to your constituents,” says Pavlis, also a Knoxville city councilman, in the invitation. “Taping times are available on a first-come, first-served basis, so we encourage you to schedule yours as soon as possible.”

A copy of the invitation was obtained Wednesday by the Chattanooga Times Free Press after House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, forward the invite to representatives via email.

The PSAs are to be recorded at the state Capitol next week.

Local lawmakers involved in the broadband fight are suspicious of Charter’s offer and particularly the timing.

“Right now it would appear to those watching from the outside that big business won and big business is now reciprocating,” said Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, whose effort to offer a scaled-down compromise on his muni-broadband expansion bill was shot down Tuesday in the House Business and Utilities Subcommittee.

While Charter’s reservation of space in Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey’s rarely used second-floor office in the state Capitol appears to have been made before the vote, it still came as various telecommunications’ lobbyists were working against broadband bills sponsored by Brooks and other mostly Chattanooga-area legislators.

…Charter’s offer of free time to speak on public issues also comes with lawmakers hoping to go home soon and begin reelection campaigns.

Harwell spokeswoman Kara Owen said Wednesday the “conversation” about Charter Communications’ PSAs “began a couple of weeks ago. It didn’t have anything to do with the bill. It’s a public service announcement.”

Owen noted Nashville Public Television has done PSAs in the past. Asked if Charter had ever offered the opportunity to Tennessee lawmakers, Owen said “my understanding is they had done it in North Carolina.”

Broadband bill axed; Brooks blames lobbyists

A last-ditch effort by state Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, to save salvage his municipal broadband bill failed Tuesday, the Times-Free Press reports. Brooks had tried narrowing the bill from applying statewide to instead be a regional demonstration project.

As a platoon of AT&T and other lobbyists opposed to the measure stood outside the room watching proceedings on a video screen, House Business and Utilities Subcommittee members voted 5-3 against Brook’s proposed amendment.

Brooks had tried narrowing the bill from applying statewide to instead be a small demonstration project — xpected to let Chattanooga’s EPB extend its lightning-fast Internet broadband and video offerings to underserved areas of Hamilton and Bradley counties.

…”It’s a testament to the power of lobbying against this bill and not listening to our electorate,” Brooks told reporters after leaving the committee room. “We have thousands of petitions that were signed [and placed] in everybody s office. And the voice of the people today was not heard. And that’s unfortunate.”

Asked who was lobbying against the bill, Brooks said, “the list of who was not would be shorter. I heard they hired 27 lawyers to fight.”

…Rep. Dan Howell, R-Georgetown, whose Bradley County district would have benefited from the bill, said the proposed amendment “was the perfect opportunity for EPB to be a pilot and to prove they can do what they say they can do. And if they can’t do it, it’s a perfect opportunity to put it to rest forever.

“They wouldn’t even let us do a pilot to prove that EPB can do what it claimed,” Howell added.

Brooks said “it just shows that this is not a statewide issue. This is not even a local issue. This is a who’s-got-the-most-power issue. And right now it was not us.”

AT&T, Comcast and other opponents say it’s unfair to let EPB and its municipal counterparts extend their Internet and video offerings outside their service areas.

Ramsey pans ban on cell phones while driving

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey says he opposes an effort to make it a crime to speak on handheld phones while driving in Tennessee.

The bill sponsored by Republican Rep. John Holsclaw Jr. of Elizabethton would make it a misdemeanor punishable by a $50 fine to use a mobile phone while driving. Drivers would still be able to use hands-free devices to make calls.

Ramsey said the state’s ban on texting while driving goes far enough. He said distracted driving is already a traffic offense in Tennessee.

The House version of the bill advanced out of the Transportation Committee on Tuesday after a contentious debate. It would have to clear the House Criminal Justice Committee before heading for the floor.

The Senate Transpiration Committee takes up the bill next week.

Note: The bill is HB1566, sponsored by Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, in the Senate.

Haslam pans broadband bill

Gov. Bill Haslam says efforts by municipal electric services to expand high-speed Internet to rural areas won’t fully solve Tennessee’s broadband accessibility issues and doesn’t fairly treat for-profit servers like AT&T and Comcast, reports the Times-Free Press.

“The easy thing everybody can say is, ‘We need broadband,'” the Republican governor told Times Free Press editors and reporters last week. “The difficult thing is to say, ‘How are we going to do it?’ I mean, one of the current bills won’t really do that. It’ll provide broadband to some additional areas but it really won’t take it to everyone, anywhere.”

Proposed legislation would lift restrictions on where municipal utilities such as EPB can offer services. Chattanooga’s EPB has said the city-owned utility is eager to offer its fiber-optic telecom services throughout Bradley County.

The municipal broadband bill, sponsored in the House by Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, would allow EPB and other public utilities to expand into areas served by rural electric cooperatives if the co-ops agree. But for-profit companies oppose the legislation.

As proponents of the years-long effort to expand municipal broadband began cranking up another attempt this year, Randy Boyd, Haslam’s commissioner of economic and community development, announced he was launching a statewide assessment of broadband access and usage in Tennessee…. Haslam said Boyd will determine what parts of the state do not have broadband and how many people are without the service.

The governor said his own “best read of the numbers” is there are 200,000 households that don’t have broadband.

Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, sponsor of the upper chamber’s broadband bill, took issue with a number of the governor’s statements. The 200,000 estimate is “totally bogus” and too low, she said, adding she’s heard that estimate previously “from people who stand to profit by saying it’s that low.”

“The truth is there are hundreds of thousands, more than 200,000,” she said. “There’s a significant number of homes that have no access and an equally significant number of homes that have no competition, no choice and something that is unreliable, unaffordable and that’s not their product choice.”

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.
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Legislator would ban cell phone talking while driving

News release from Rep. John Holsclaw
(NASHVILLE) — Tennessee already has laws on the books banning texting while driving, but the legislature will soon consider banning talking on a cell phone while driving, unless it is hands-free.

Under legislation soon to be filed by State Representative John Holsclaw (R–Elizabethton), drivers would no longer be able to legally talk and drive using a handheld cellphone, but could still use the phone if it is in hands-free mode.

The use of cellphones while driving has long been a source of contention not only in Tennessee, but across the nation. Currently, talking on a hand-held cellphone while driving is completely banned in 14 states and Washington, D.C. The use of cellphones by those with driver permits is restricted in 37 states and D.C. Text messaging is banned in 46 states and the District of Columbia.

Right now in Tennessee, adults can still hold their phones and drive at the same time, as long as they are not texting or emailing. However, law enforcement officials have said it is almost impossible to enforce the texting ban since drivers can still lawfully hold a cellphone while driving.

In 2015 alone, 1,336 car crashes in Tennessee have been attributed to distracted driving due to cellphone usage.
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Final arguments filed in Chattanooga broadband lawsuit

Final arguments have been filed in a federal court lawsuit that challenges a Federal Communications Commission ruling that would allow Chattanooga and Wilson, N.C., to expand their broadband service despite state laws forbidding expansion, reports the Times-Free Press in a review of the situation.

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery and his staff want to overturn the FCC decision and block expansion by Chattanooga’s electric power board, known as EPB, suggesting it’s a states’ rights issue.

The courtroom maneuvering comes with efforts afoot to change the Tennessee law in the Legislature and with Congress considering a bill that would overturn the FCC ruling.

Excerpts from the story:

Slatery, who has hired a Washington, D.C., law firm to fight the FCC ruling, claims in final arguments made to the court this week that the federal agency is trying to improperly interfere with the authority of state governments to regulate telecommunication providers. Tennessee’s attorney general asserts the FCC is violating the 10th amendment restrictions on what the federal government can direct states to do.

“By rewriting Tennessee and North Carolina state laws to expand municipal powers, the FCC infringes upon an inviolable aspect of state sovereignty, exceeds the agency’s statutory authority and contradicts Supreme Court precedent,” Washington, D.C., attorney Joshua Turner wrote in a 57-page argument filed on behalf of Tennessee’s attorney general. “The [FCC] order is an affront to state sovereignty, and it cannot stand.”

…Chattanooga’s EPB and the city of Wilson, N.C…. (contend) that state limits on where they could offer broadband service constituted a barrier to broadband deployment contrary to what Congress wanted and empowered the FCC to avoid.

In court filings, EPB attorney Rick Hitchcock also noted that, as a municipal utility in a home rule city, EPB is not regulated by the state in its service territory and previous attorneys general in Tennessee have affirmed the authority of EPB to offer telecom services throughout the state.

EPB President Harold DePriest said the utility isn’t looking to expand to make more money, but it is responding to requests from some rural residents who live close to EPB’s existing service region but have no access to broadband connections.

…The appellate court is reviewing final arguments made this week by proponents and opponents of municipal broadband. The court could ask for oral arguments but is expected next year to issue its ruling, which could then be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the meantime, DePriest said EPB is encouraging the Tennessee Legislature to lift its territorial limits on municipal broadband to allow those that want the service to get it. Changing the state law in the legislative session that starts in January could be quicker than waiting on a final decision from the court, DePriest said.

In the General Assembly, such legislation has picked up the support of area Republican lawmakers, including state Sens. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, and Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and state Reps. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, and Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah.

“It’s going to be an uphill battle next year to get this passed, but the people waiting on broadband service outside of EPB’s area want and need it,” Gardenhire said.

Broadband for electric utilities debated at TACIR

A Tennessee cable industry lobbyist asserted Wednesday that government-owned electric utilities like Chattanooga’s EPB are failing with their offerings of lightning-fast broadband service to customers, according to the Times-Free Press.

But John Farris’ claim later prompted Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, to charge he was peddling “lies” on behalf of investor-owned companies like Comcast and AT&T who fear competition in the rural market.

The firms are battling renewed efforts by municipally owned utilities to extend their broadband Internet offerings and other telecommunication services outside their service areas.

Farris, chief lobbyist and attorney for the Tennessee Cable and Telecommunications Association, made his assertion during a four-hour-long hearing by members of the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations.

EPB President Harold DePriest disputed Farris’ assertion. Just last week, DePriest announced Chattanooga, which first won international recognition as the country’s first “Gig City” for its 1-gigabit broadband service, announced EPB will now offer a 10-gigabit service.

“Last year, we made $130 million from communications,” DePriest said. “Communications paid the electric system $30 million,” DePriest said.

He said EPB gave Chattanooga and Hamilton County governments a combined $20 million, some $8 million of which went for in-lieu-of-tax payments. EPB’s fiber operation, a stand-alone service which started about five years ago, once had about $90 million in bonded indebtedness. It’s down to about $36 million, DePriest said.