Thank to Jeff Hoel for providing the transcript for Episode 110 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast with Will Aycock of Wilson and Danna Bailey of Chattanooga. Listen to this episode here.
Danna Bailey: When we have neighbors outside of our service territory who are specifically asking us to come and serve them, we want to be able to respond to that in a positive way.
Lisa Gonzalez: Hello, and welcome to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. This is Lisa Gonzalez.
Earlier this month, the communities of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Wilson, North Carolina — both with municipal networks — filed petitions with the FCC. Both communities requested the agency to use its authority to preempt state laws. Those laws, put in place through lobbying efforts from big-name incumbents, prevent either network from serving their neighbors. For some time now, neighboring communities have approached Wilson and Chattanooga, requesting that they expand their networks to serve their neighbors. Existing state laws preclude Greenlight, in Wilson, and Chattanooga’s Electric Power Board from serving beyond strict geographic borders. In recent months, Chairman Wheeler has publicly announced that the FCC will do all it can to encourage expansion of broadband networks. He specifically pointed to the FCC’s authority in Section 706, to preempt such state laws, that do nothing to encourage deployment, and only serve to protect large corporate provider interests. On July 28th, the FCC established a schedule in which it intends to take comments on both petitions. Open comments are due August 29th. Reply comments are due September 29th. We encourage every American who wants ubiquitous connectivity to file comments in support of the Wilson and Chattanooga petitions. Federal preemption of these anti-muni laws will be a significant victory toward restoring local telecommunications authority.
In this podcast, Chris and I spend some time discussing the petitions, the circumstances in Wilson and Chattanooga, and what you can do to share your opinion with the FCC.
As a bonus, Chris touched base with Danna Bailey, Vice President of Corporate Communications at Chattanooga’s EPB, and Will Aycock, General Manager of Greenlight in Wilson.
Hey, Chris. How’s it going?
Chris Mitchell: It’s going well, Lisa. I notice that we’re recording this in the conference room rather than my desk, which, you helpfully noted, doesn’t seem to exist — it’s hidden by mounds of paper.
Lisa: Right. I still don’t know if that desk is made of wood or metal, because I can’t see the top of it.
Chris: Whatever it is, it’s very durable.
Lisa: OK. I’m sure it is, with a hundred pounds of paper on it. Um-hum.
So, today, we’re talking about these petitions that Wilson, North Carolina, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, have filed with the FCC.
Lisa: And they are encouraging the FCC to turn over some state laws in their respective states. Or, to preempt them, I should say. And to exercise their authority under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
Chris: Right. And we’ve given a lot of background on that. We’ve written about it, you know. We’ve talked with Harold Feld about it. And there’s a little bit more background we’re putting up. But I think it’s worth noting just that these two petitions are a little bit different. That in the case of Tennessee, they’re actually looking at removing four words from the statute, basically. Whereas in the case of North Carolina, you’re right, they are in fact looking to overturn a much broader set of laws that were passed together, with the express intent of limiting investment in next-generation networks in North Carolina.
Lisa: Um-hum. Um-hum. So, in Chattanooga, we’re talking about removing four words.
Chris: Four words.
Lisa: What are the four words?
Chris: Those four words are: “within its service area.” And that prevents Chattanooga from offering any services outside of the electric territory in which it already operates, which includes something like seven counties — 700 square miles, 600 square miles, something like that.
Lisa: And I understand that there have been other communities nearby that want Chattanooga to help them — serve them.
Chris: There sure are. Yeah, there definitely are. And, in fact, that’s something that Danna Bailey and I just talked about. Maybe we can insert that interview here.
Chris: And now I’m going to welcome Danna Bailey, Vice President of Corporate Communications for the Electric Power Board in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Welcome to the show.
Danna Bailey: Thanks very much. Glad to be here.
Chris: You’ve been on once or twice before, and, you know, you and I have certainly spoken many times. But this is very exciting. You’ve filed a petition with the FCC. Tell us why.
Danna: For many years, since we’ve had our gigabit per second Internet network in place, we’ve had requests from neighboring communities, outside of our electric service territory but very close in, neighboring communities who’ve been interested in having us bring our service to their communities. And state law — Tennessee state law — does not allow us to do that right now. We looked for options over the years and eventually decided that, you know, knowing that Congress mandates that the FCC seek out and remove barriers to broadband access. We see this state law as a barrier to broadband access. So we’re really issuing the petition in hopes that we’ll be able to eventually help out some of our neighbors in surrounding areas get access to high-speed Internet.
Chris: Some people say that municipal networks are likely to just sort of go after the areas that are higher density and NOT go after the rural folks. Now, you’ve served everyone in a mixture of high-density and low-density already. Maybe you can talk a little bit about that dynamic of how the City of Chattanooga differs from your territory, and then the areas around that, still more further out.
Danna: So we serve the City of Chattanooga and most of Hamilton County, and parts of eight additional adjacent counties, in southeast Tennessee and northwest Georgia. So, the core of the City of Chattanooga is relatively dense — densely populated. But as you move out, we certainly serve some very rural parts of this community. We go out into farmland. And we serve everybody. So when we did our build-out, we started building in the most densely-populated areas, and then we moved out. But now that we have the whole build-out complete, everybody within 600 square miles — our 600 square mile service territory — has access to the same infrastructure.
Chris: In a number of cases, you actually took fiber to people who only had dial-up, through. Isn’t that right?
Danna: Yes. There were people within our electric power service territory who only had access to dial-up connectivity at the time, and now they have access to one gigabit per second. And what’s happening is, there are still neighbors, who are just outside our electric power service territory who are still in that same place — who still have access to either dial-up only, or some other very low speed connectivity.
Chris: And this isn’t just residents, right? You’re talking about schools, businesses, residents — anyone, right?
Danna: Right. We’ve had requests from residences, from businesses, from hospitals. We’ve had requests from lots of different kinds of folks outside our service territory.
Chris: And one of the things that I thought was interesting was that you’ve made it very clear that you’re not going to force your incredible service on anyone. There must be some people who are worried that EPB might be forcing it on a reluctant population in some area.
Danna: EPB is owned by the City of Chattanooga. Our first and foremost goal is to serve this community in the best way that we can. When we have neighbors outside of sour service territory who are specifically asking us to come and serve them, we want to be able to respond to that in a positive way. But in no way are we looking to become a regional force or a statewide force.
Chris: And I think that’s to your credit. I mean, I think we may have had this conversation before. I know that I’ve had it with other communities who have had their own networks. But the fact that you’re not trying to build a wall around your city and, basically, saying, hey, if you want great Internet access, you’ve got to move across line. That’s just really great. And I really want to congratulate you on that.
Danna: Well, thanks. Although we’re not opposed to folks moving across the line.
Chris: Right. No. And, in fact, ….
Danna: That’s probably the quickest way to get it. Just come on over.
Chris: That’s good to remember.
Danna: But, outside of that, we hope we’ll be able to offer it to people outside too.
Chris: Is there anything else that you want people to know about the petition, and the fact that they should submit comments this month?
Danna: One of the reasons why we have submitted this petition is that we think this is a matter of local communities being able to have the choice to figure out, on their own, how to get the broadband infrastructure they need. If a local community wants to get that infrastructure from us, they should have that right. So we really think this is a matter of local communities being able to make the choice of how they determine their own destiny. I know there’s been some conversation out there about this being a states’ rights issue. Well, we think it’s a local rights issue.
Chris: Well, that’s music to my ears. That’s certainly our point of view. I think there’s always issues about how different levels of government should interact. But on these matters of essential local infrastructure, I think it’s inappropriate to deny communities the ability to make their own decisions.
Danna: We couldn’t agree more.
Chris: Well, thank you so much for coming on the show.
Danna: Sure thing. Any time. Thank you.
Lisa: Now, Wilson, North Carolina, has also filed the petition with the FCC. And their situation is a little bit different.
Chris: That’s right.
Lisa: But they are also seeking to end the geographic limitation that’s put on them by state law.
Chris: Right. So, interestingly, Wilson also serves multiple counties. So, Wilson as a city is 50,000 people. They have an electric company — a municipal electric department. And within that municipal electric department, they have this Greenlight fiber optic network system. And the electric service, actually, spreads out across many counties, …
Chris: … because Wilson had expanded that way back in 1918 — to its neighbors when they needed a critical infrastructure. Something that’s noted in the brief here. But when Time Warner Cable wrote this law and pushed it through the legislature in 2011, at that point, they basically said Wilson can only serve within its own county.
Lisa: Right. So they already have a lot of the infrastructure already in place …
Chris: They do.
Lisa: … that they could use to build off of.
Chris: Right. And, in fact, you know, they’re doing smart grid stuff within their county, but they wouldn’t be able to do that outside of their county very easily. Even though they’re serving electricity outside of their county. So they’re even more limited than Chattanooga was. And, you know, I actually recently had a conversation with Will Aycock that we could play now to talk a little bit about why they filed their petition.
Chris: And now I’m going to speak with Will Aycock, the General Manager of Greenlight in North Carolina. Will, you’ve been on the show before. Welcome back.
Will Aycock: Well, thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Chris: You have just filed some interesting petitions. And I have to say that when I read this story, I was really impressed. I thought that the petitions did a remarkable job of presenting both the positives of your network and some of the challenges that you face. But let me just ask you: why did you file a petition with the FCC?
Will: Well, you know, years ago, when we first got involved with building this fiber-to-the-home network, our elected leaders saw the fiber optic infrastructure as a really critical public infrastructure that was essential — needed for the health of our community — economic health and quality of life. And it was also very critical to the way we deliver other services to our citizens and customers. And we actually provide service in portions of six counties. And we’re currently only allowed to provide the broadband in Wilson County. And so, in part, you know, we filed the petition because we feel we should be able to expand the broadband service to those customers we already have, who are in these other surrounding counties, and bring the benefits of the infrastructure to everyone that we serve.
We’ve also had extensive interest from many communities in the region who understand also, and are becoming more aware of the fact that broadband is public infrastructure. And they’re looking for ways to help bring the infrastructure to their citizens. And we believe that all options really should be on the table for local communities to be able to take the steps they need to do, to bring that infrastructure to their community.
Chris: You know, I was really stuck by one of the details about the history of Wilson. Now, in the past, we’ve talked about how you’ve invested as a community in the reservoir, and improving the amount of water you have — this big infrastructure investment in the ’90s. But I didn’t realize that you were so early — and I don’t mean you personally — but in the 1890s, when Wilson built the electric plant. And that’s pretty astounding. That’s very early in the citywide electrification. But the thing that caught my eye was that then you expanded it to neighbors. Because, at that point, you were permitted to do so. And now, you have neighbors that need this infrastructure, but state law is preventing you from doing that.
Will: Right. There’s been a long history here of investing in local public infrastructure, you know, and seeing the needs of the community and the broader region in which we reside, and trying to help meet those needs and bring infrastructure to people.
Chris: One of the things that I found interesting is the way that North Carolina crafted the law with regard to what broadband was defined as. And I’m just curious if there’s anything you want to say, in terms of explaining the difference between the conception of broadband under current statute and what Wilson is delivering.
Will: Well, obviously, we’re the first gigabit city in North Carolina. So we offer residential speeds up to a gig. And all of our services are symmetrical — so both the download and the upload, you know, you get the same amount of bandwidth. And we found that the upload is particularly important, having not just the high-capacity download but the high-capacity upload. It’s really very important, in particular, as you look towards the economic health of the community — providing infrastructure that creative-class folks can utilize for their jobs. People who are altering content, again, find it very essential to be able to share the things that they’re creating very quickly and efficiently with customers in the rest of the world.
Chris: So, maybe we can finish up with me asking if there’s any recent developments in Wilson, then, that you can share with us?
Will: You know, we’re continuing to grow the network into the areas that we are allowed to serve. We are beginning another expansion out into the more rural areas of Wilson County. In a couple of instances, we have actually grown all the way to the county boundary. And in addition to that, we are continuing to deploy our smart grid solutions. So, really, broadening the utilization of the network in support of our other utilities.
Lisa: So we’ve been following this whole debate about Section 706 authority for a few months now. So, is this the only way that we can — or is this the best way that we can find a way to reestablish local authority for communities that are interested in doing something like this?
Chris: Yes! This is our best hope, frankly.
Chris: I mean, when it comes down to it, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance — we’re no fan of the word preemption. In fact, it’s anathema to everything that we believe in. And in this case, the preemption that we oppose is that of the states. And, oddly enough, the only way to get around it is to have the Federal government — in this case, the FCC — preempt the states. So we’re preempting preemption. Which runs us at risk of falling down the rabbit hole. But the fundamental point is that communities should have an ability to choose.
And we’ve been trying for years — and others have been trying for years — to have North Carolina and Tennessee change these laws. But the simple fact is, you’ve got lobbyists that have millions of dollars to spend, to make sure that these laws stay in place. And it’s very hard to make a change in the legislature when a very powerful industry doesn’t want that change to happen, because it’s easy to kill a bill. It’s hard to get a bill out of subcommittee that Comcast frowns upon, let alone get it out of committee and on the floor.
So, I think that the only hope that we really have to restore local authority is coming about through this process. And to that, we really have to hand it to the FCC. On this issue, they’re really stepping up, and I think they’re regulating in the correct manner.
Lisa: OK. So, people need to file comments.
Chris: They absolutely should.
Lisa: And they need to include information — If they live in a community that has a network, or is considering a network, or a place that absolutely needs a network — you need to include that sort of thing. What other things should they include?
Chris: Don’t think you can only comment if you have a certain circumstance. You should comment. You’re an American citizen. You live in the country. You know, these are things that impact you. You should have a voice in it. So…. Some of the things that are the most helpful, though, for building the record, are any evidence where a local government investment has resulted in more deployment or better deployment of advanced telecommunications services.
The way the statutes work, the FCC has more power to remove barriers to certain kinds of investment. It’s not just a matter of investing in telecommunications services. It’s advanced services. Which, in this case, we’re talking about fiber networks. And so, personal stories about how local government or a community making investments in these sort of fiber networks, and how that’s helped a resident or businesses, or even schools and libraries, basically. The key point is that we’re trying to unleash more investment in these services that we need across the country. And we’re making an argument that by removing laws that limit the ability of municipalities to make those investments, we’ll get more of those investments. And that would be a good thing.
Lisa: Um-hum. And that’s what Section 706 tells us — is that the FCC is supposed to — by Congress — encourage this kind of investment. And that’s what this authority does.
Chris: Right. The FCC makes a finding that advanced telecommunications services are not being developed rapidly enough, then it has to figure out a way of making sure that those things are being developed. And we have here two petitions. Jim Baller wrote both. And, frankly, you know, if you’re thinking about commenting, and if you have an interest in this, read the petitions. They’re both around 50 pages. It’s not very intimidating. In fact, as far as legal documents go, I thought these were very interesting. And they have some really interesting history….
Lisa: Right. They do provide a lot of interesting stuff about the different communities, and the way that their work has enhanced the quality of life there, and how they’d like to do it for the other communities around them. I also thought one of the interesting parts was when Jim talks about the difference between two different parts of that statute.
Lisa: And just reinforces how 706 is the authority that the FCC needs to exercise, and should be able to exercise.
Chris: Right. And the fact — I mean, as some of these things go, when they’re passed through Congress — technically, the FCC doesn’t have a choice — which is interesting. The law is written in the way that if the services are not being deployed rapidly enough, then the FCC has to remove barriers.
Chris: It really doesn’t have much of a choice. I mean, in practice, a lot of these things are a little more on the gray scale than the black or white. But it’s very clear that Congress was giving the FCC notice: that if the FCC finds that these services aren’t being deployed fast enough, they need to figure out a way of deploying them ore quickly.
Lisa: They need to be proactive — and do something about it.
Chris: Yeah. Because, as a country, we don’t want the areas around Chattanooga to have poor Internet access. You know, we want communities near Wilson to be able to have great Internet access. And if that’s the best way they can get it — is from the City of Wilson. I mean, this is a fundamental goal, ultimately, you know. This isn’t just about local authority, and different sort of legal issues. This is about whether our businesses, our schools, our residents have the kind of ability to communicate that we think they should, as a country. That will give us a strong economy, a strong democracy, and all those sorts of things. I mean, this is really important stuff, ultimately.
Lisa: Um-hum. If people are interested in filing, it’s really not that complicated. In fact, we’ve already heard from one person, Jeff, who had filed himself. And there’s a couple of ways to do it. There’s a quick way, and then there’s a more involved way. You can do the quick way by going to the FCC.gov website. There’s a “take action” button that you could click on. And you can follow the links, file a public comment.
Chris: People should be aware that they need to comment in both. And that, in order to comment on anything, the most complicated part — I mean, all of this is really easy — the most complicated part is remembering which proceeding number you have to deal with.
Lisa: Right. And in fact, if you go there — and I looked earlier today — these two petitions are already getting comments. Because on the FCC page, they list all of the proceedings and the ones that are getting the most comments are at the top of the page — the top of the list. Well, these are not at the top of the list, but I was surprised to see them on the list at all, already. So, the Wilson petition is proceeding 14-115. The Chattanooga petition is 14-116. And you can, you know, do it a quick way, just submitting a paragraph. Or you can prepare something a little more lengthy, and you can upload it as a document.
Chris: Right. And, you know, if you look at some of the other filings, sometimes you’ll see — they have a specific cover page….
Chris: You don’t need to worry about things like that. The important part is that you express yourself. You take part in the process. And you help to build a record that will be used as a decision is made. And then also, as this issue is litigated in the courts afterward, that record will be important.
To recap, very briefly. You go to fcc.gov. You click on “take action.” You can find — then you’ll find “file a public comment.” And you scroll down. And you’ll see some of them there if they’ve been filed recently. But the important thing is: the proceeding number for Wilson is 14-115, and for Chattanooga, it’s 14-116.
So, we’re going to have more information. And we’re also going to try and have some basic comments and things for people. We really encourage you as well to — if you’re part of a church group, if you’re part of an organization — pass a resolution, or have the organization file comments. Because it’s really important, I think, to show that a cross-section of America cares about this. This isn’t just a niche issue, impacting the communities around Chattanooga and Wilson. This is really about the authority of local governments across the country being able to meet their needs and make their decisions locally when it comes to this important infrastructure.
Lisa: You can access the petitions at fcc.gov, or at muninetworks.org. Remember, the deadline for opening comments is August 29th, and reply comments is September 29th. This is one opportunity we cannot let pass us by.
Send us your ideas for the show. E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter. Our handle is @communitynets. This show was released on August 5th, 2014. Thank you again to Waylon Thornton for the music. The song is “Bronco Romp,” licensed using Creative Commons.