Forum message — ‘We want our Internet’

BRIAN GRAVES Banner Staff Writer
Posted 12/12/15

It did not take a high-speed broadband connection for the representatives of two major communications companies to get the message from Bradley County residents — “We want our …

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Forum message — ‘We want our Internet’

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It did not take a high-speed broadband connection for the representatives of two major communications companies to get the message from Bradley County residents — “We want our Internet.”

Representatives from AT&T and Charter Communications were joined in a panel discussion by the heads of Cleveland Utilities and EPB concerning the barriers that are currently preventing the potential expansion of EPB broadband service into Bradley County.

State statutes do not currently allow public utilities from offering broadband services except within the electrical service footprint designated by TVA.

The Federal Communications Commission voted to overturn that regulation, but the state appealed the ruling.

Two local legislators, State Reps. Kevin Brooks and Dan Howell, have been spearheading a bill for the next legislative session that would permit utilities to offer broadband outside their footprint if asked by an adjacent local utility.

Passage of that law would set up a potential CU/EPB partnership and could rapidly deploy broadband to the extreme portions of the county that find themselves doing without.

It is a complaint that has become more vocal within the past year and the Bradley County Commission has expressed its support for the changes and will discuss another support resolution at its work session Monday afternoon.

Friday’s forum, sponsored by the Cleveland/Bradley County Chamber of Commerce’s Public Affairs Committee, produced a packed house and some pointed comments.

The panel was comprised of Nick Pavlis and Tyler Hamilton of Charter, Alan Hill of AT&T, David Snyder of RevTel.net, John Hatfield of Voiceopia Communications, Harold DePriest of EPB, and Ken Webb of Cleveland Utilities.

“We can’t survive anymore without the internet,” Chamber President/CEO Gary Farlow said in opening the forum. “Broadband is one of the most important issues we face. We have a lot of needs for it. Our schools need it to get information to their students and there is some talk about giving laptops to all of their students. But, they still have to have service when they get home.”

He noted the session was “not a debate or an argument,” but one to provide information on the subject.

Each organization represented was given 10 minutes to speak to the forum and the order was determined by the drawing of business cards.

Pavlis said Charter currently reaches 75 percent of the business community in Cleveland within 2,000 feet of their exisiting plant.

“In the county, it’s 74 percent,” he said.

“We have 60 employees that live, work and play here in Bradley County,” Pavlis added.

He said in 2014, Charter collected and paid to the city of Cleveland $408,739 and $19,000 to the county in franchise fees.

“We have invested $163 million in the state of Tennessee since 2012. Our total investment in Cleveland and Bradley County is around $30 million,” Pavlis said. “We obviously have a huge presence here.”

Pavlis said Charter plans on continuing its investment in the community.

“We are certainly here to stay and assist the Chambers we are members of to help businesses,” he said.

Hamilton spoke of some of the technical aspects of providing broadband.

Hill said AT&T has “grown up with the community.”

“There are a lot of good things going on,” Hill said. “Instead of talking about the gaps, we need to celebrate what all has happened here because there is a lot of opportunities here for businesses that have services both wired and wireless.”

He said AT&T has spent $12 million in Bradley County from 2012 through 2014 and has 60 employees who reside here.

“This is an expensive proposition to be in the telecommunications business,” Hill said. “In Tennessee, we average $400 million per year.”

Webb reviewed CU’s ongoing studies into providing broadband.

“I do not come in an adversarial role toward any one or any other interest in this room,” Webb began. “I do, in addition to representing Cleveland Utilities, come representing a significant number of citizens who realize and understand access to reliable and reasonably priced high-speed internet is no longer a luxury. It is indeed a necessity.”

He noted the service was important for the educational system preparing students for the workforce, allowing businesses to perform in a global economy, offering the latest in medical care, providing public service and protection responsibilities, economic development and recruitment.

“Access to high-speed internet today is what electricity was in the 1930s and 1940s,” he said.

Webb said he respected those who feel that need should be met by the private sector.

“However, broadband availability has become such a necessity we can no longer wait for the service issues to be addressed. In my mind, the public versus private enterprise debate has been settled since some private enterprise entities have accepted public money for the expansion of their systems.”

He said the outcome if CU’s planning is still unknown.

“This is not a decision to be based on emotion,” Webb said. “It must be made on facts. What we do know is any proposal to provide service must be reliable, must be reasonably priced and prices must be reasonbaly stable, pricing must be based on real costs and revenues must be sufficient to meet financial obligations and commitments, the service must be backed by first-class customer service, the service must be based on sound financial principals.”

He noted any plan by CU would have to receive approval of the state comptroller’s office before implemented.

DePriest spoke of EPB’s success with their program.

He noted the UTC Finance department determined EPB’s broadband has produced an economic beneift of $865 million to $1.3 billion along with 2,832 jobs created.

“There is something really great about education and telemedicine and the uses for agriculture,” DePriest said. “And, fiber is extremely good for business.”

He told of how blood is tested for leukemia.

“They draw the blood and FedEx it to a doctor in Atlanta, he diagnosis it and sends it back,” DePriest said. “It takes three to four days. That would be the longest three to four days you could possibly spend if you were waiting to find out if your child had leukemia. We have the ability to have people get it instantaenously. What we need are legislation that further the use of this technology rather than block it.”

Snyder argued it is another area of life government of which government wants control.

"I desperately want to expand my broadband service, and I love competing with other telecom companies,” Synder said. “But, I don't think it is fair for me and other private companies to have to compete with our own government that taxes and regulates us.”

“We don’t care who brings it,” Hatfield said of the service. “Just bring it!”

That seemed to be the point of those attendees who spoke of their situations.

Dr. Terry Forshee, president of Cherokee Pharmacy stores, told the panelists he can't get broadband at his South Bradley County residence near Red Clay State Park.

“In my opinion, you had 27 years to bring cable down to me. I’m three miles away to the closest that you come,” Forshee said. “I’m waiting. I call every month.

“I’m going to have a party and we’re going to get on my satellite internet and watch a movie tonight,” he continued. “You better be prepared to stay for a long time.”

Forshee referred to the statement made by Hill of AT&T about not focusing on the “gaps.”

“The problem is I am one of the gaps,” he said.

Clark Campbell, the owner of Initio Labs in downtown Cleveland, told the forum he was forced to hire a backup internet service because of several days of slowed service from Charter.

“We will consider moving our business to Hamilton County if the high-speed Internet problem is not solved in the next 12 months because we just can't compete with the speed, reliability and customer service of EPB in Chattanooga,” Campbell said.

He added he moved his family to Ooltewah “to have adequate Internet service.”

“It’s also clear by the presentations this morning that EPB understands and is addressing the needs of small and medium businesss and the home consumer,” Campbell said. “It seems EPB and Cleveland Utilities are in agreement. I don’t see what the problem is. Let’s lift the ban and let everybody compete.”

Tommy Wright, who is a vice president at Cleveland State, brought up the subject of education.

“Over the last few years we have seen the expansion of online educational opportunities,” Wright said. “With the addition of Tennessee Promise, we have seen an influx of students.”

He said he lives near Forshee and “also calls regularly” to attempt to get service.

“For $25,000, I can have Charter travel 1,500 feet to get to my house,” Wright said. “Just bring it.”

Sandi Wallis lives in the northern end of the county and shared a similar situation.

“We live in one of those areas Charter and AT&T have refused to come to,” Wallis said. “I have it less than a quarter-mile in one direction with Charter. I have it less than a quarter-mile in another direction with AT&T. And, nobody wants to give me service.”

She said Charter sends her mailings and calls her.

“I spoke to John on the phone and he was a lovely gentleman, but I never heard back from him,” Wallis said. “AT&T has taken my phone number and address numerous times over the internet and phone telling me they will let me know just as soon as they are in my area.

“I've lived out there 30 years. I’ve raised two children and put them through school. I've had to send my kids into town to do their homework. We’ve had to go into town with our business laptops to download updates to our programs for our accounting business because we can’t do it at home,” she continued.

“We need service — not just reliable service and not just for entertainment — we run a home business,” Wallis said. “If they want to cherry-pick, let them cherry-pick. But, pick me.”

The representatives from Charter and AT&T did not respond directly to the audience members comments.

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