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GOP Rival for Governor of New York Backs Charter Spectrum; Calls Cuomo “Putin on the Hudson”


Charter Communications has found itself an ally in Marc Molinaro, Republican candidate for New York’s governor, who attacked Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday for ordering the removal of Spectrum from New York State.

“We’ve got a megalomaniac on our hands, a veritable ‘Putin on the Hudson,'” Molinaro charged, defending the cable company for being attacked by the governor and “his surrogates” for political purposes.

Cuomo “put his thumb on the scale of a major PSC decision,” said Molinaro. “I think Andrew Cuomo got furious with NY1 News and effectively pulled the plug on an entire cable system as punishment to NY1, and as a warning to others he can affect who dare to ask him tough questions.”

Molinaro has repeatedly claimed the Public Service Commission is in the back pocket of the governor’s office.

Cuomo vs. NY1 – Spectrum’s 24-hour news channel in New York City

Molinaro’s campaign has been critical of an ongoing spat between the governor and reporters from NY1, Spectrum’s 24-hour news channel in New York City.

Earlier this month, Cuomo bristled at a question about improper campaign contributions from Crystal Run Healthcare, a health insurance provider in Middletown. NY1 reporter Zack Fink asked if the governor was considering returning those contributions and launching an internal investigation.

Gov. Cuomo

GOV. CUOMO: […] If the ongoing investigation finds any fraud, then as we’ve always done, we will return the donations. That’s standard operating procedure. We’re doing it in this case; we’ve always done it.

But speaking of fraud, Charter Spectrum has been executing fraud on the people of this state. They were given a franchise for a very specific set of conditions. It is a very valuable franchise. Many companies could have been given the franchise. Charter Spectrum said that they would increase cable access to the poor and rural communities around the state. That was the condition of them getting the franchise. I promised this state 100% high-speed broadband. Why? Because high-speed broadband is going to be the great equalizer, the great democratizer.

Whether you’re a business, an individual, you’re going to need high-speed broadband to be competitive. Charter Spectrum defrauded this state. They are defrauding consumers. Charter Spectrum is running ads that say we are ahead of schedule and at no cost to the taxpayer. The Public Service Commission said they’re behind schedule, not on schedule, and certainly not ahead of schedule. And to say it is no cost to the taxpayers is also a fraud, because that’s the condition upon which the taxpayers gave you the franchise. So you are defrauding the people of this state. That’s a fraud.


ZACK FINK (NY1): You said the PSC is looking into new operators. Is it the PSC’s place to do that or is it the market’s?

GOV. CUOMO: Are you speaking on behalf of Charter Spectrum or yourself?

ZACK FINK (NY1): No, I’m just asking a question. You brought it up so I’m curious. You said Friday that the PSC was looking at potential new operators.

GOV. CUOMO: Well, the Public Service Commission is saying that Charter Spectrum violated their franchise agreement. If you violate your franchise agreement, then you lose the franchise agreement and then they would have to find another operator without disruption to any of the consumers or the good workers of Charter Spectrum.

Viewers of NY1, a Spectrum News channel, never saw this exchange, which was widely covered elsewhere by the New York media. Viewers also didn’t see an on-the-record call-in by the governor made later than day to NY1’s newsroom to discuss the exchange. News of the call leaked after nobody at NY1 would publicly discuss it or why the news channel refused to air it.

Cuomo’s opponents on both his left and right criticized the governor over his treatment of the NY1 reporter.

“I’ll come right out and say it. It looks to me like Andrew Cuomo is trying to send a chilling message to the news media, ’don’t mess with me’, and I hope the inspector general can prove me wrong,” Molinaro said in a statement.

This week, Molinaro turned up the heat by claiming the governor was “acting more like a third-world dictator trying to intimidate the news media into dropping stories than an elected democratic leader who respects the First Amendment and has nothing to fear from it.”

Cynthia Nixon, running for the Democratic nomination to the left of Cuomo politically, claimed his chastising of NY1 reporters was out of line, resembling how Donald Trump treats the press.

“Cuomo can’t hold himself up as New York’s answer to Donald Trump, and simultaneously threaten members of the press for doing their job,” Nixon said, asking the governor to apologize.

Cuomo’s spokesman Rich Azzopardi claimed the ongoing criticism of Charter is nothing new for Gov. Cuomo.

“The governor answered his question and made the same statement that he has made to Charter Spectrum reporters and reporters statewide numerous times over the past few months, communicating the facts of the state’s two-year dispute with Charter for failing to serve the citizens of the state,” Azzopardi said.

Cuomo has made offhand remarks about Charter since the company replaced Time Warner Cable in 2016. He criticized NY1 and other Spectrum News stations around the state for not covering the IBEW strike against the cable company or a lawsuit filed by the state attorney general over the cable company’s failure to deliver on advertised broadband speeds.

“They virtually blacked it out,” Cuomo said of Spectrum News during a press event held on the day the PSC voted to drop Charter as a provider in New York.

Azzopardi also denied Molinaro’s accusation that the governor was involved in the PSC’s decision to force Charter to leave New York and dismissed the Republican opponent for spreading unproven “conspiracy theories.”

Cuomo is widely expected to be re-elected, with both Nixon and Molinaro running significantly behind the governor in polls. The primary is on Sept. 13.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo discusses Charter’s broken promises to New York State during a visit to Rochester, N.Y.  (Courtesy: Democrat & Chronicle) (2:28)

Charter Spectrum Refuses to Air Political Ad Slamming Spectrum for High Rates

Brindisi’s ad has been “censored” by Charter Spectrum.

A Democratic candidate running for Congress in central New York cannot get his 30-second ad slamming New York’s biggest cable company on Spectrum’s cable channels.

Anthony Brindisi slammed Charter Communications for “censoring” his campaign by refusing to air his latest ad which claims Spectrum has almost doubled its rates since taking over for Time Warner Cable and has broken its promises to the state. Brindisi also accused his Republican opponent — incumbent Rep. Claudia Tenney — of siding with the cable company, and “voted to give the company a $9 billion tax cut while they were raising our rates.”

The fact that Brindisi opens his ad claiming, “if you’re watching this ad on Spectrum cable, you’re getting ripped off,” may have been partly responsible for Charter’s refusal to air his ad.

“The ad did not meet our criteria,” said Maureen Huff, a spokesperson for Charter Spectrum.

Rep. Tenney

But the ad is not factually inaccurate, just hyperbolic. Many Spectrum customers complained about steep rate increases switching between their original Time Warner Cable plans and new plans offered by Spectrum. Some customers needed to upgrade to higher tier cable TV packages to keep channels they would otherwise lose and the company’s ongoing digital conversion convinced many customers they needed to rent set-top boxes for every television in their home, at a substantial cost.

Brindisi’s claim that “Claudia Tenney’s campaign is bankrolled by Spectrum,” is slightly misplaced, although Charter Communications has spent $5,000 on contributions to her campaign in 2017. In fact, Comcast is her third largest contributor, spending $12,900 on her campaign so far during the 2017-2018 election cycle. The Koch Brothers, a cable industry ally, comes in fourth.

Brindisi hoped to air his ads in the Utica and Binghamton markets through Spectrum, but will have to spend more buying time on over the air channels. He says he doesn’t like Spectrum’s stranglehold on local views aired on cable channels.

“It’s a scary precedent for them to be setting just because I’ve been a vocal critic of the company,” Brindisi told the New York Times. “I don’t think I should be precluded from informing the public about their practices here in New York State and letting people know that, at the same time they are raising your cable rates, they are a big beneficiary of the tax bill and a major supporter of my opponent.”

Watch the 30-second advertisement Charter Spectrum refused to allow on its cable channels. Anthony Brindisi is a Democratic candidate for Congress in central New York (30 seconds)

C-Spire Introduces Unlimited 120 Mbps Fixed Wireless for $50/Month in Mississippi

For residents of 10 Mississippi communities, an alternative broadband option is now available delivering up to 120/50 Mbps speed with no data caps or throttling for a flat $50 a month, taxes and fees included.

C Spire 5G Internet” is as described, except it doesn’t use the official 5G standard and will require the installation of a “dinner plate”-sized antenna on one’s home to get the service.

C Spire is using an 802.11 variant with equipment developed by Mimosa and Siklu, leveraging C Spire’s existing 8,400 route miles of fiber infrastructure to extend service wirelessly to each customer without the cost of wiring a fiber optic cable to the home.

Siklu’s EtherHaul products work in conjunction with its point-to-point and point-to-multipoint radios that operate in the 60 and 70-80 GHz millimeter wave bands. Because of the vast amount of spectrum available on these uncongested frequencies, C Spire can provide connections up to 10 Gbps from each small cell site.

C Spire is using Siklu’s EH-600 mmWave backhaul equipment for its fixed wireless internet service in Mississippi.

Mimosa supplies short-range MicroPoP architectures and in limited tower deployments including Mimosa A5 and A5c access devices, Mimosa C5 client devices, and Mimosa N5-360 beamforming antennas.

“Our service is backhauled by Siklu’s carrier grade solutions enabling us to deliver high-speed internet access without the arbitrary data caps usually associated with LTE or satellite services,” said C Spire president Stephen Bye.  “With a flat rate of $50 a month, which includes taxes and fees, our customers can now easily get all of the content they want and need.”

C Spire said it is quickly working to introduce the service in “dozens” of markets in Mississippi, in addition to its earlier plans to offer fixed wireless to over 90,000 locations across its service area. The “5G” fixed wireless service being introduced in Mississippi is not the same as C Spire’s earlier fixed wireless initiative.

Customers report wireless speeds are within a reasonable range of what is advertised, but antenna placement can be critical to get the best speed. It isn’t known how many customers are currently sharing each small cell site, and C Spire has protected itself with a contract clause allowing it to begin data caps, usage based billing, or targeted suspensions for customers deemed to be consuming too much data if network congestion becomes a problem.

Mississippi is broadband-challenged because many of its rural locations are populated with some of the country’s poorest citizens. AT&T, the state’s largest phone company, has shown little interest expanding fiber into many of these areas, especially in northern Mississippi, and the state’s cable companies include Cable One, notorious for being expensive and data-capped. As a result, the state is ranked 49th out of 50 for broadband availability.

C Spire is a regional mobile provider — the sixth largest in the country — and directly provides its own cell service in Memphis, Tenn., Mississippi, Alabama, and the Florida Panhandle.

C Spire introduces 120 Mbps fixed wireless internet access for a flat $50 a month in Mississippi. No data caps or throttling. This company produced video introduces the service. (1:23)

New York Public Service Commission Votes 4-0 to Kick Charter’s Spectrum Out of the State

It took the four commissioners of the New York Public Service Commission just 20 minutes to vote unanimously to undo the multi-billion dollar 2016 merger of Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable, by revoking its approval for failing to meet the public interest.

“Charter’s repeated failures to serve New Yorkers and honor its commitments are well documented and are only getting worse. After more than a year of administrative enforcement efforts to bring Charter into compliance with the Commission’s merger order, the time has come for stronger actions to protect New Yorkers and the public interest,” said Commission Chair John B. Rhodes. “Charter’s non-compliance and brazenly disrespectful behavior toward New York State and its customers necessitates the actions taken today seeking court-ordered penalties for its failures, and revoking the Charter merger approval.”

If the order withstands inevitable court challenges, it would be the first time a regulator drove a large cable operator out of business in a state for bad conduct. It would also make history, achieving similar notoriety to the 1981 case of Tele-Communications, Inc., vs. Jefferson City, Mo., when TCI’s national director of franchising personally threatened the mayor and the city’s cable consultant if their franchise was not renewed. When the city voted to award the franchise to another cable operator, TCI refused to sell its system, withheld franchise fee payments, and alternately told the city it would either strip its cables off utility poles in spite or let them “rot on the pole” rather than sell at any price.

Without modification, the Charter/Time Warner Cable merger was a bad deal for New York

After Stop the Cap! and other consumer groups participated in a detailed review of Charter Communications’ proposal to acquire Time Warner Cable, the Public Service Commission adopted many of our pro-consumer suggestions to ensure the merger benefited the people of New York at least partly as much as the executives and shareholders of the two companies. New York State law demands that telecommunications mergers must meet a public interest test to win approval. On its face, the Commission found the Charter/Time Warner Cable proposal failed to meet this test. The state received detailed evidence showing Time Warner Cable’s existing upgrade plan offered a better deal to New York residents than Charter’s own proposal. Time Warner Cable also maintained a large workforce in New York in call centers, direct hire technicians, and its corporate headquarters.

After a detailed analysis, the PSC rejected the merger for failure to meet the public interest. At the same time, it also offered Charter a way to turn that rejection into a conditional approval. If the company agreed to “enforceable and concrete conditions” that would deliver positive net benefits for New Yorkers to share in the rewards of the merger deal, the Commission would approve the transaction.

Charter has complied with most of the deal conditions demanded by the Commission. The company has boosted its broadband speeds across the state ahead of schedule, committed to at least seven years of broadband service without data caps, introduced an affordable internet access program and temporarily maintained an existing offer for $14.99 slow-speed internet access available to any New York customer, and agreed to maintain jobs in New York (with the exception of a 1.5 year strike action ongoing in New York City affecting technicians).

But the most costly condition for Charter to meet is also the one it has repeatedly failed to meet — its commitment to wire unserved rural areas, largely in upstate New York. Charter committed to a timetable to roll out high-speed internet access for 145,000 homes and businesses that currently lack access to any internet provider.

Charter’s merger deal meets Gov. Cuomo’s Broadband for All Program

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announcing rural broadband initiatives in New York in 2015.

This rural broadband expansion condition was integral to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Broadband for All program, promising to make broadband access available to every resident and business in New York State.

Cuomo’s broadband program depended on several sources to accomplish its goal:

  • State/Private Funding: The state invested $500 million of $5.7 billion dollars it earned from settling lawsuits against big banks and insurance companies over the improprieties that helped trigger the 2008 Great Recession. This money was designed to incentivize the private sector to expand high-speed internet access in underserved/unserved areas. Recipients had to provide a 1:1 financial match of whatever grant funds were given, putting the dollar value of this part of the program at over $1 billion.
  • The FCC: The Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund (CAF) offered funding to incumbent providers to expand service in certain areas in New York. Some $170 million of that funding allocated to the state was declined, principally by Verizon, which showed little interest in expanding its rural broadband network. A bipartisan effort to retain and divert those funds into the New NY Broadband Program was successful, allowing the state to fund several rural broadband projects Verizon was not interested in.
  • Charter/Time Warner Cable Merger: To win approval of its merger in New York, Charter agreed to pass an additional 145,000 homes and businesses in less densely populated areas across the state. The company was required to file regular updates on its progress and coordinate with the state the exact locations it planned to serve. This was to ensure Charter would not spend money wiring areas already receiving broadband expansion funding.

For the program to be successful, it was essential that duplication of expansion efforts be avoided. As the program’s public funding wound down, the state discovered it lacked enough money to attract private bidders to serve the last 75,628 locations around the state that remained without a service provider, deemed too remote and expensive to serve. The state awarded over $15 million in state funds and an additional $13.6 million in federal and private funding to Hughes Network Services, LLC, which will furnish satellite-based internet service to those locations. That solution prompted loud complaints from residents discovering they were baited with high-speed internet access that realistically could provide gigabit speed, and suddenly switched to satellite service that cannot guarantee to consistently meet the FCC’s 25/3 Mbps broadband standard and comes with a data cap of 50 GB (or less in some instances) a month, rendering its usefulness highly questionable.

Bait rural upstate customers with the promise of Spectrum internet access, switch to expanding service in New York City instead

Rural broadband for urban customers.

The Cuomo Administration may also have to temper its excitement for successfully completing the Broadband for All program if Charter fails to deliver service to the homes and businesses the state expected it would. In fact, the Commission today accused Charter of substituting broadband expansion in dense urban areas where the company would undoubtedly offer service with or without an expansion commitment for the rural upstate areas it originally promised to service. By adding one customer in a converted loft in Brooklyn while deleting a customer it planned to serve in upstate Livingston County, Charter would save a substantial sum. In all, the Commission alleges Charter’s attempts to count urban areas as “newly passed” while leaving rural upstate areas unserved could save the company tens of millions of dollars.

The company’s failure to meet its rural buildout commitment began almost immediately. Despite a requirement to complete an initial buildout to 36,250 homes and businesses by May 18, 2017, Charter only managed to reach 15,164 premises — just 41.8% of its goal. As a result, the Commission began talks with Charter to get the company back on track and monitor Charter’s claim that utility companies were stalling approval of Charter’s pole attachment requests. The Commission even offered its staff to assist Charter with a comprehensive database tracking pole attachment issues, in hopes of facilitating prompt resolution of any problems that delayed service expansion.

To further assist Charter, the Commission set a new schedule of Charter’s buildout obligations for the period between December 2017 and May 2020, comprised of roughly 20,000-23,000 new passings during each six month period, a significant reduction from the original requirement of 36,250 new passings in the first buildout phase.

To incentivize Charter to stay on track, the Commission also required the company to establish a $12 million Letter of Credit to secure Charter’s obligations. If Charter missed further deadlines, the state could draw funds each time Charter missed a target, typically in $1 million increments.

On Jan. 8, 2018, Charter filed its first report under the new settlement on its buildout progress. The company claimed it exceeded its target by reaching 42,889 homes and businesses in the previous six months. The company also began airing commercials inserted into cable channels seen by Spectrum customers around the state, proclaiming it was expanding service ahead of schedule.

On closer inspection, however, the PSC discovered the most innovative part of Charter’s new-found success was inflating the numbers of new passings by including over 12,000 addresses in New York City and several upstate cities, 1,762 locations where Spectrum service was already available, and more than 250 addresses that were in areas that already received state funding to expand service. In addition to not being rural areas, Charter’s existing franchise agreements would have compelled the company to offer service to most of these addresses with or without the PSC deal conditions.

The state informed Charter it planned to disqualify 18,363 passings from the December report filed on Jan. 8, which meant Charter again failed to satisfy the required 36,771 passings it was supposed to have finished by mid-December. The Commission also removed addresses Charter unilaterally added to its 145,000 buildout plan where other providers already offered service or were planning to with the assistance of already-awarded grant funding.

The many fines for Charter Communications

The Commission has fined Charter $1 million for missing its December targets and another $1 million for not making good on correcting its earlier failures. On Friday, it fined Charter once again for another $1 million, reaching a total of $3 million in fines. The PSC also directed its Counsel to bring an enforcement action in State Supreme Court to seek additional penalties for past failures and ongoing non-compliance with its obligations. Earlier this month, the PSC referred a false advertising claim to the Attorney General’s office regarding Charter’s misleading ads about its progress expanding rural broadband in New York.

The number of alleged misdeeds by Charter has been amply covered by Stop the Cap! in our own investigative report.

In fact, to date, the Commission says Charter has never met any of its rural buildout targets. In response, Charter claimed it effectively did not have to, arguing that once the merger was approved, Charter was under no obligation to answer to the Commission’s regulatory requirements respecting broadband rollouts. Under federal deregulation laws, the state cannot regulate broadband service, Charter argued.

$12 million is a small price to pay when saving tens of millions not expanding rural service

The Commission also suspects that Charter’s $12 million Letter of Credit is a small price to pay for reneging on its broadband commitments.

“It appears that the prospect of forfeiting its right to earn back all of Settlement Agreement’s $12 million Letter of Credit does not seem to be an appropriate incentive where the company stands to save tens of millions of dollars by failing to live up to its buildout obligations in New York,” the Commission wrote.

A 4-0 Vote to Kick Charter Spectrum Out of New York

What has gotten the company’s intention is a 4-0 unanimous vote to cancel the approval of the company’s merger agreement with the state, which effectively puts Charter out of business in New York. The Commission ordered Charter to file a plan within 60 days detailing how it plans to cease service in New York and transition to another provider without causing any service disruptions for customers.

Such a move is unprecedented, but not unwarranted in the eyes of the Commission, which claims it gave Charter ample warnings to correct its bad behavior.

“Both the Commission and the DPS [PSC] Staff have repeatedly attempted to correct Charter’s behavior and secure its performance of the Approval Order’s Network Expansion Condition,” the Commission wrote. “Charter continues to show an inability or a total unwillingness to extend its network in the manner intended by the Commission to pass the requisite number of unserved or underserved homes and/or businesses, which make evident that there was not – and is not – a corporate commitment of compliance with regard to this important public interest condition.”

Now the company faces a requirement to file a six-month transition plan to end service in all areas formerly served by Time Warner Cable in New York State by early 2019. The Commission has also made it clear it is done talking and negotiating with Charter, denying all requests for a rehearing.

“Charter’s repeated, continued, and brazen non-compliance with the Commission-imposed regulatory obligations and failure to act in the public’s interest necessitates a more stringent remedy,” the Commission concluded.

The New York Public Service Commission holds a special session to fine Charter Communications and revoke its merger with Time Warner Cable. (Hearing commences at 5:00 mark) (25:24)

Tennessee’s “Smoke and Mirrors” Rural Broadband Initiatives Fail to Deliver

Rural Roane County, Tenn.

Earlier this month, a standing room only crowd packed the offices of Rockwood Electric Utility (REU) in Rockwood, Tenn., despite the fact the meeting was held at 10 a.m. on a Friday morning.

Local residents were there on a work day to listen to area providers and local officials discuss rural broadband access. Most wanted to know exactly when the local phone or cable company planned to expand to bring internet access to the far corners of the region between Knoxville and Chattanooga in east Tennessee.

Comcast, Charter, and AT&T told Roane County Commissioners Ron Berry and Darryl Meadows, State Sen. Ken Yager (R-Kingston), and the crowd they all had a long wait because the companies couldn’t profit offering rural broadband service to the county.

“That is what our shareholders expect and the way we operate in a capitalistic society,” declared Andy Macke, vice president of external affairs at Comcast.

“The biggest challenge for all of you in this room is what they call the last mile,” said Alan L. Hill, the regional director of external and legislative affairs at AT&T Tennessee. “It is a challenge. We all face these challenges.”

In short, nothing much had changed in Roane County, or other rural counties in southeastern Tennessee, to convince service providers to spend money to bring internet service to the region. Until that changed, AT&T, Comcast and others should not be expected to be on the front lines addressing rural internet access. Successive governors of Tennessee have long complained about the rural broadband problem, but the state legislature remains cool to the idea of the state government intervening to help resolve it.

Gov. Haslam

In 2017, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam noted Tennessee currently ranked 29th in the U.S. for broadband access, with 34 percent of rural Tennessee residents lacking access at recognized minimum standards. In splashy news releases and media events, Haslam sold his solution to the problem — the Broadband Accessibility Act, offering up to $45 million over three years to assist making broadband available to unserved homes and businesses.

In reality, the law authorized spending no more than $9.5 million annually on rural broadband grants over the next three years. It also slashed the FCC’s broadband standard from 25/3 Mbps to 10/1 Mbps, presumably a gift to the phone companies who prefer to offer less-capable DSL service in rural areas. In the first year of awards, 13 Tennessee counties, none in the southeastern region where Roane County lies, divided the money, diluting the impact to almost homeopathic strength.

Critics called Haslam’s broadband improvement program “The Smoke and Mirrors Act” for promising a lot and delivering little. At current funding levels, broadband service can only be expanded to 5,000 of the estimated 422,000 households that lack access to internet service, and then only with the award winner’s matching financial contribution.

The demand for rural broadband financial assistance is obvious from the $66 million in requests received from 71 different utilities, co-ops, and communications companies in the first year of the program, all seeking state funding to expand rural broadband. Only a small fraction of those requests were approved. AT&T applied for money targeting Roane County and was turned down. AT&T’s Hill expressed sympathy for the county’s school children who need to complete homework assignments by borrowing Wi-Fi access from fast food establishments, area businesses, and larger libraries. But AT&T’s sympathy will not solve Roane County’s broadband problems.

What might is Rockwood Electric Utility, the municipal power company that sponsored the broadband event.

REU is a not-for-profit, municipally owned utility that has successfully served portions of Roane, Cumberland, and Morgan counties since 1939. By itself, the community-owned utility is no threat to companies like Comcast, because it offers service in places the cable company won’t. But if REU partnered with other municipal providers and offered internet service in larger nearby towns and communities to achieve economy of scale and a more secure financial position, that is a competitive threat apparently so perilous that the telecom industry spent millions of lobbying dollars on state legislatures like the one in Tennessee to ghost-write legislation to discourage utilities like REU from getting into the broadband business, much less dare to compete directly with them. AT&T, Charter, and Comcast also fear how they will compete against municipal utilities that have successfully delivered electric service and maintained an excellent reputation in the community for decades.

Tennessee law is decidedly stacked in favor of AT&T, Charter, and Comcast and against municipal utilities. Although the state allows municipal providers to supply broadband, it can come only after satisfying a series of regulatory rules designed to protect commercial cable and phone companies. It also prohibits municipal providers from offering service outside of existing service areas. That leaves communities served by a for-profit, investor-owned utility out of luck, as well as residents in areas where a rural utility lacked adequate resources to supply broadband service on its own.

Haslam’s Broadband Accessibility Act cynically retained these restrictions and blockades, hampering the rural broadband expansion the law was supposed to address.

For several years, Sen. Janice Bowling (R-Coffee, Franklin, Grundy, Marion, Sequatchie, Van Buren and Warren Counties), has tried to cut one section of Tennessee’s broadband-related laws that prohibits municipal providers from offering service outside of their existing utility service area. Her proposed legislation would authorize municipalities to provide telecommunication service, including broadband service, either on its own or by joint venture or other business relationship with one or more third parties and in geographical areas that are inside and outside the electric plant’s service area.

In her sprawling State Senate District 16, a municipal provider already offers fiber broadband service, but Tennessee’s current protectionist laws prohibit LightTUBe from offering service to nearby towns where service is absent or severely lacking. That has left homes and businesses in her district at a major disadvantage economically.

Sen. Janice Bowling (R-Tenn.) discusses rural broadband challenges in her 16th district south of Nashville and her bill to help municipal utilities provide broadband service. (4:20)

“In rural Tennessee, if we have what is called an industrial park, and we have electricity, you have running water, you have some paved roads, but if you do not have access to fiber at this point, what you have is an electrified cow pasture with running water and walking trails. It is not an industrial park,” she complained, noting that the only reason her bill is prevented from becoming law is lobbying by the state’s cable and phone companies. “We can no longer leave the people of Tennessee hostage to profit margins of large corporations. We appreciate what they’re doing. We appreciate where they do it, but in rural Tennessee we will never meet their profit margins and so we can no longer be held hostage when we have the ability to help ourselves.”

Sen. Yager

Her sentiment in shared by many other Tennessee legislators who serve rural districts, and her Senate bill (and House companion bill) routinely receive little, if any, public opposition. But private lobbying by telecom industry lobbyists makes sure the bill never reaches the governor’s desk, usually dying in an obscure committee unlikely to attract media attention.

That reality is why residents of Roane County were meeting in a crowded room to get answers about why broadband still remained elusive after several years, despite the high-profile attention it seems to get in the legislature and governor’s office.

“‘It is a critical issue as I said. It is not a luxury. It is a necessity. I certainly understand your frustration,” responded Sen. Ken Yager. “This problem is so big I don’t think one person can do it alone, one entity. It’s going to have to have partnerships. One thing this bill encourages is for your co-ops to partner with one another to bring broadband in.”

The bill Sen. Yager refers to and endorsed at the meeting was written by Sen. Bowling. Sen. Yager must be very familiar with Bowling’s proposals, because she has appeared before the Senate Commerce & Labor Committee he belongs to year after year to promote it. On March 3, 2018, the bill failed again in a 4-3 vote. But unbeknownst to those in attendance at the public meeting, Sen. Yager himself delivered the fourth “no” vote that killed the bill.

Undeterred, Bowling promises to be back next year with the same bill language as before. Perhaps next time, voters will know who their friends are in the legislature, and who actually represents the interests of big corporate cable and phone companies.

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