By Chris Butler | For Tennessee Watchdog
A Tennessee legislator who previously backed giving government-owned and taxpayer-backed Internet networks the right to grow larger has abruptly changed his mind.
State Sen. Mark Green, R-Clarksville, said he was told two years ago that private Internet service providers wouldn’t offer service to an industrial park outside city limits that manufactures tires and zinc.
People working for Clarksville’s government-owned network, CDE Lightband, were eager to do business at the park, people told Green. But the utility had to stay put because a 1999 state law forbids public utilities from offering service beyond their municipal boundaries.
So Green pushed a bill to do away with the law to spur economic development and to ensure that industrial park could attract new businesses.
His proposed legislation didn’t go far.
Then Green switched sides.
“I was given false information that there were no Internet providers at that industrial park there and nobody wanted to go out there,” Green told Watchdog.org “Then my staff did some research, and it turned out AT&T and Charter were already there. Every person in that industrial park has had their needs met by private entities. There was no longer any reason for me to support my own bill.”
Green won’t say who, exactly, gave him false information, but he said that’s not the only reason he changed his mind.
Green said he believes government-owned networks, if state governments allow them to expand beyond their service territories, would cause a dramatic decrease in private investment in new Internet technology.
“AT&T has already invested $1 million in Tennessee on wire and wireless services,” Green said. “Why should the government spend millions to stick a fiber in the ground when in the future most of these things will connect wirelessly anyway? Profit margins make people operate efficiently, and government doesn’t operate efficiently.”
Some legislators, like state Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, have never wavered in their support for expanding GONs and have long said this is about bringing high-speed Internet to rural areas where it doesn’t exist.
Bowling told Watchdog.org that private providers like AT&T have had plenty of money and time to build a high-speed Internet network out in the rustic countryside.
“It’s nonsense for the giant corporations who are making $18 billion profit to say that some little local provider of high speed broadband is in any way a serious competition to them,” Bowling said. “They would be in those areas right now if they wanted to be there.”
Some lawmakers, including state Rep. Dan Howell, R-Georgetown, have said Internet is as important a right and component to life as electricity and water.
“My area is primarily a rural one,” Howell said. “Students at Cleveland State Community College can’t even go home and check their email at night. We think momentum is on our side this year.”
Howell and other supporters say AT&T already takes millions in federal subsidies, so, in essence, true free market capitalism isn’t really taking place anyway.
The Federal Communications Commission recently gave $428 million to AT&T to bring high-speed Internet to rural areas, but, according to Arstechnica.com, AT&T took the money under protest, for something known as Connect America.
That FCC program uses revenue from phone bill surcharges to pay for rural Internet.
The CEO of a Jackson-based Internet service provider told Tennessee Watchdog last year that free market solutions will soon avail themselves to people who live in rural areas, likely through the same wireless technology people already use on their smart phones.
The nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California released research in 2010 reporting that government investment in broadband has only limited benefits.