The Tennessee Telecommunications Association supports a bill pushed by Gov. Bill Haslam that would help bridge the rural broadband divide through tax credits and allowing electric cooperatives to offer internet and video services.
H.B. 529, which is sponsored by 20 Republicans and will be heard in the House Business and Utilities Committee on Wednesday after a week delay, would deregulate Tennessee’s 23 electric cooperatives for the purpose of providing broadband and cable services to their customers. That bill previously passed the House Business and Utilities Subcommittee by a 13-0 vote and is expected to pass the full committee and be sent to the Tennessee House for a vote.
Companion bill S.B. 1215 has been referred to the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee.
Levoy Knowles, executive director of the TTA, told Watchdog.org in a statement that “members of the Tennessee Telecommunications Association support the Governor’s efforts to bring broadband to rural Tennesseans who remain without service.”
Not all members of the groups stand united in support of the measure. Jonathan Harlan, founder and CEO of TTA associate member Aeneas Communications LLC, based in Jackson, previously told Watchdog he’s against the bill due to concerns about the advantages electric co-ops have gained through lower property taxes and government grants. He and other providers told Watchdog the recent political climate in Tennessee, with the possibility of municipal networks being allowed to expand or for co-ops to offer service, has had a chilling effect, making smaller providers wary of growing into certain areas.
“We have other cities in which we want to build in west Tennessee, but now I have to consider whether utility companies are going to be my competitor,” Harlan said.
The members of TTA, a nonprofit industry trade group that represents both private and cooperative providers of telephone and internet services, have installed more than 12,000 miles of fiber and provide broadband to more than 136,000 rural residents of Tennessee, Knowles noted.
“As providers of high-speed broadband and fiber to many parts of rural Tennessee, we know there are still places that need to get connected,” he said. “Our position is to address the coverage gaps first and provide broadband to all Tennesseans.”
Knowles added that the TTA welcomes the governor’s plan to offer $45 million in grants and tax credits to help facilitate rural broadband expansion. The bill would provide $10 million in grants per year for three years and $5 million in tax credits on the purchase of equipment for broadband construction over the same duration.