Alabama can’t have nice things like Chattanooga’s 1 gigabit broadband Internet (and the economic boom that has accompanied it) for 3 reasons: the Public Service Commission, the Legislature, and the 1901 Alabama Constitution. Actually, the state legislature and constitution keep the state from having many, many nice things, but let’s focus on broadband Internet.
More than a third of Alabama residents lack any kind of broadband service – let along 1 gig speeds. Still, keep in mind that Chattanooga’s speed is a huge deal in the US – even though it’s a yawn in many places in the world. As such, it’s been a game-changer for attracting industry to the city: good, high-paying tech jobs. Watch the video (it won’t embed) about why entrepreneurs are heading to Chattanooga.
Meanwhile, industries interested in relocating to many Alabama counties find Internet access to be on a par with Bulgaria. Thanks to the stimulus money from President Obama’s first term, Alabama got a start on building broadband networks in underserved areas, but much more is needed.
Communities that have previously relied on manufacturing are finding it difficult to attract similar industry when a large employer leaves. A plant closure can devastate a town’s tax base, close schools, reduce quality of life, and drive young people away in search of better jobs. The Shoals area, for instance, is finding life after International Paper to be a challenge. But broadband could be key to the area’s recovery according to a recent report:
Shoals leaders have been told something other Southern communities are beginning to figure out: To become or remain economically competitive, access to high-speed broadband Internet connections is essential.
A study commissioned by the Northwest Alabama Council of Local Government and the city of Florence revealed two major weaknesses in the Shoals: Lack of an interstate highway and lack of high-speed broadband and fiber optics connections.
The state spends hundreds of millions doling out corporate welfare to lure companies to Alabama. Chattanooga used a $117 million federal stimulus grant and sat back to watch companies storm the city’s gates.
The city’s current mayor, Andy Berke, said at the annual GigTank Demo Day in July, where startups pitched investors, that over the past few years Chattanooga has experienced the third highest wage growth of all midsize US cities. Many of these jobs pay an average of $69,000. The statewide average is $40,000 a year, according to 2014 data from US Bureau of Labor and Statistics.
Think of the advantages to Alabama communities:
- Easier, cheaper economic development and better jobs – even for people in small towns.
- Access to telemedicine in small towns and rural areas. That could be a huge benefit in areas that have lost their local hospitals.
- Remote education options that allow public school students to take advanced classes (or even get remedial help matching their needs) and offer college-level courses as well.
What’s stopping us? Our state government.
- Long ago, the legislature removed the PSC’s ability to collect information about Internet access in the state. Yes, telecoms have more protection than consumers in Alabama. Later, it deregulated landline phone rates on the premise that “everybody” has as cell phone anyway. No worries, they’re using their extra time to pray, fight Obamacare, coal emission regulations, and abortion.
- It’s hard to figure out where broadband is offered & where it isn’t. The map finally produced by the Alabama Broadband Initiative is only viewable if you have a broadband connection, and it hasn’t been kept updated. Furthermore, in too many parts of the state, there is only one provider or the so-called “broadband” access is only cell phone access.
- Communities that do jump through hoops to set up their own systems then face a Constitutional challenge. In 2014, voters got to decide on a constitutional amendment to allow Franklin County to offer sewer and broadband Internet service to residents.
I’m not saying we need to lay fiber all across the state. Broadband over power lines (BPL) may be a better option for some areas, for instance. But we can no longer sit back and wait for telecom companies to step up and provide decent, affordable service to our communities. If local residents are willing to foot the bill for a community broadband system, the legislature and the PSC need to get out of their way. It’s past time for the state government to focus on the PUBLIC part of public service.
The road to super-fast Broadband in Chattanooga wasn’t easy. Industry fought hard to stop it: Comcast sued the city utility company several times and even the State of Tennessee sued the city – and lost.
“EPB is an island of competitive high speed broadband service surrounded by areas for the most part with single or no provider of advanced broadband,” FCC wireline competition official Gregory Kwan told commissioners before they voted to preempt the state law.
We can expect similar pushback in Alabama, and our legislators aren’t very willing to cross campaign donors. Expect opponents to sing the praises of “private industry!” and partnerships.
Chattanooga considered a Google partnership – very briefly:
But Littlefield, who was Chattanooga’s mayor at the time, said he wasn’t interested in courting Google. “I didn’t want to see Chattanooga get back in a position where we only had one choice and were beholden to a company like Google,” he said.
Huntsville tried to get Google, but lost the competition.
In July, Governor Bentley announced a new state initiative to create an “Office of Broadband Development” that will seek grants, etc. to expand broadband access. That’s a great goal, but without public pressure, we’re likely to get more of the same from telecoms: secrecy, lack of transparency in pricing and options, and high prices. Alabama’s laws practically guarantee it.
It’s true that other Internet providers are finally expressing interest in providing high-speed broadband, but it’s spotty and the pricing structures are about as clear as mud.
For instance, AT&T prices its vaunted u-Verse service to match Google Fiber, but the company isn’t offering nearly the speed or the price that Chattanooga residents enjoy. Currently, AT&T’s fastest u-Verse offering is 75 mbps, and the price of $35/month sounds like a deal. But the devil is always in the fine print. That promo rate requires you to purchase other AT&T services and limits your allowed data download.
$35 Internet Offer: Price for Internet 75 (75Mbps) Internet after bill credit for new residential Internet customers. Requires another AT&T service (TV/Voice) and combined billing on a single AT&T bill. After 12 mos., then prevailing rate (currently up to $87) applies unless canceled by customer prior to end of promo period. 12 mo. term req’d. Prorated ETF ($180) applies if Internet is disconnected before end of term. Promo pricing applies to service rates only; excludes taxes, up to $99 install fee and a $7 monthly Internet equipment fee. U-verse Internet price incl. 250 GB of data/mo. Add ’l $10 charge per 50 GB of data usage in excess of data plan.
Yes… there’s a deal. Sell “super fast Internet” that allows you to stream multiple movies at the same time. And then charge extra if you… you know… actually use it.
EPB (Chattanooga’s electric power board) doesn’t have to use gimmicks and deceptive advertising for a simple reason: their job is to serve the public, not profits for stockholders and fat bonuses for company executives:
As a community-owned company, our goal is not to build stock value or amass wealth. It is to help as many people in our community as possible, improving our community through reliable products and services at the lowest reasonable cost.
To achieve this goal, we prioritize technology-based innovation, unequivocal excellence in all aspects of the company, reliability, honesty and integrity, exceptional customer service, and corporate social responsibility.
Many of Alabama’s municipal power companies and co-ops have the same business model. We need to make it easier for them to emulate the Chattanooga model. As Grady Smith, CEO of Cullman Electric Cooperative said in 2009:
I do not believe it is an exaggeration to say that broadband service is the single most important technological issue of this generation, and that it will have the greatest impact on society since basic electricity and telephone service.
That was true 6 years ago – and it’s even more important now. The state does have the power to make that happen:
- The legislature needs to make it easier for local governments to create broadband networks.
- The legislature needs to unleash the Public Service Commission and give it real oversight authority of all public services – including broadband access.
- The public needs to elect PSC members who are more concerned about public service than they are about abortion and President Obama.
- The Alabama Constitution needs revising. It’s completely asinine that it takes a state constitutional amendment for Franklin County to authorize its Water & Fire Authority to provide sewer and broadband services to residents.
- Citizens need to interact with the “Office of Broadband Development” (hopefully it will soon have a Web site) to make sure that members get input from users, not just industry.
This is an effort critical for the future of Alabama. Here’s the challenge Chattanooga laid down for other states and communities:
“A city can afford to lose old industries, but not its young people,” he said. “You lose them, you lose your future. I’m happy to say today we’re shamelessly proud of the fact that we are stealing other cities’ young people.”
How about we make 2016 the year of Alabama broadband? It will be quite the change from our state leaders’ current 4G political agenda of “Gays, Guns, God, and Gynecology.