Tennessee could be the Internet’s last hope.
The business lobby often demands that government get out of the way of private corporations, so that competition can flourish and high-quality services can be efficiently delivered to as many consumers as possible. Yet, in an epic fight over telecommunications policy, the paradigm is now being flipped on its head, with corporate forces demanding the government squelch competition and halt the expansion of those high-quality services. Whether and how federal officials act may ultimately shape the future of America’s information economy.
The front line in this fight is Chattanooga, Tennessee, where officials at the city’s public electric utility, EPB, realized that smart-grid energy infrastructure could also provide consumers super-fast Internet speeds at competitive prices. A few years ago, those officials decided to act on that revelation. Like a publicly traded corporation, the utility issued bonds to raise resources to invest in the new broadband project. Similarly, just as many private corporations ended up receiving federal stimulus dollars, so did EPB, which put those monies into its new network.
The result is a system that now provides the nation’s fastest broadband speeds at prices often cheaper than the private competition. As the Chattanooga Times Free Press noted a few years back, “EPB offers faster Internet speeds for the money, and shows equal pep in both uploading and downloading content, with Comcast and AT&T trailing on quickness.” Meanwhile, EPB officials tell the Washington Post that the utility’s telecom services have become “a great profit center” — an assertion confirmed by a Standard & Poor credit upgrade notice pointing out that the utility “is now covering all costs from telephone, video and Internet revenue, as well as providing significant financial benefit to the electric system.”