Question for TN 78th candidates: Internet access

Hello!  My name is Mat Binkley.  I am a life-long citizen of Cheatham County (you may know my dad Roland or my mom Janice who worked at Bank of America in Ashland City for 35 years).

I run a blog (www.mathewbinkley.org) where I like to examine political and economic issues.  I would like to ask you a few questions (over time, just one today) and post your responses on the blog.  I don’t pretend to be The Tennessean, but my posts are usually read by 20-30 people in the area, and they are on average more politically active than the average person (and thus are more responsive to substance than to soundbites).   Any responses will also be made available to other local media.


It is difficult to believe that 20th century businesses like State Industries and Flexible Whips could have been founded in Cheatham County without the widespread availability of 20th century infrastructure such as electricity and water.

It is equally difficult to believe that 21st century businesses such as IT and healthcare (not to mention all the fields yet to be invented) will set up shop in Cheatham without the widespread availability of 21st century infrastructure such as broadband internet (both for themselves, as well as for the workforce they need to attract).

In the middle 2000′s several under-served TN cities which were tired of being overlooked by private ISP’s like AT&T and Comcast (who were cherry-picking lucrative neighborhoods and ignoring the rest) began evaluating municipal internet as a way to provide broadband access to unserved constituents. In addition, several electric utilities (including CEMC, our local electric utility) were also looking at providing service.  Electric utilities have particular advantages, as they can provision both electricity and fiber internet over a single cable, reducing costs and speeding up roll-out.

Allow me to quote a passage from my college economics textbook (McConnell & Brue):

A natural monopoly exists when economies of scale are so extensive that a single firm can supply the entire market at a lower unit cost than could a number of competing firms.   Clear-cut examples of natural monopoly are relatively rare, but such conditions exist for many public utilities, such as local electricity, water, natural gas, and telephone providers.   Where there is natural monopoly, competition is uneconomical.   If the market were divided among many producers, economies of scale would not be achieved and unit costs and prices would be higher than necessary.

There are two possible alternatives for promoting better economic outcomes where natural monopoly exists.   One is public ownership, and the other is public regulation.

Tennessee’s legislature passed the “Competitive Cable and Video Services Act” in 2008 after furious lobbying by private ISP’s, based on their promise to accelerate their own broadband roll-out.   The legislation shielded private ISP’s from competition and effectively blocked municipalities and electric utilities from rolling out internet service to their constituents by forbidding them to issue debt to pay for the infrastructure.   However, it did not actually compel ISP’s to provide service.  It is actually a worst-of-both-worlds solution.

You can imagine the lasting economic damage that would have been incurred if similar legislation had prevented CEMC from borrowing to roll out electricity in the 1940′s.   This is a textbook case of rent-seeking behavior on the part of private ISP’s and regulatory capture on the part of the legislature, and was no doubt passed based both on some mixture of ideology unrestrained by real-world results, and private ISP’s increasing their political donations that year by a factor of 100 (as Upton Sinclair bitterly mused, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”)

In the 4 years since then, private ISP’s have failed to deliver on their promise. Charter and AT&T have curtailed any further roll-out of broadband. Today 15% of the households in Cheatham County cannot get *any* broadband access, and the remainder pay prices for service that people in more advanced countries would consider a bad joke (and as a US citizen I bristle at the term “more advanced countries”, but in this case it is sadly warranted.  Our internet is currently rated 35th in the world, behind several former Soviet bloc countries.)

I ask you, what do you intend to do to promulgate widespread broadband internet to your constituents?   There is the public ownership route (taking the financial handcuffs off municipalities and electric utilities and allowing them to compete) and the public regulation route (regulating private ISP rates and behavior, and compelling them to use the monopoly the legislature has effectively granted them).  Or there could be a valid alternative solution.  Can you tell us what yours are?

Other posts I have made on this issue:

http://www.mathewbinkley.org/?p=96
http://www.mathewbinkley.org/?p=14

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7 Responses to Question for TN 78th candidates: Internet access

  1. Rick Wilson says:

    Hey Mat,

    Thanks for including me in your Q & A session in your blog. I am not going to pretend to have all of the answers that people may ask. I’m not stupid, but I do have some common sense in me. I have to pay for separate services and would like to have been a part of the bundle plan with AT&T at one time, but they would not provide DSL for my street. So I pay close to $100 for my cell phone, internet, and satellite each. I could save money if I was able to be in a bundle plan, as many others could too.

    On Saturday, there was a political forum held, and was broadcast on AM790 WQSV radio. I think it was Democrat Jane Crisp who mentioned in her speech, just what you are complaining about. I am not a business owner, so I was not aware that this was a problem for business’s, but I do understand now how it can be.

    As I begin to go out and start my campaign, which will heat up right after the August Primary, I do plan to talk with people, and business owners, at what can Tennessee Lawmakers do better for them? The folks that I have talked to so far, hasn’t mentioned anything to me about Broadband connection. I’ve been getting disability questions, and being told that they can’t trust the government, and want less government involvement. Then I get parents asking, what is going to happen with education? I am not saying broadband isn’t important, I am only saying, that it hasn’t been brought up to me so far, in the conversations that I have had with folks in the district.

    As you know, a Representative is only one vote among many in the legislature. This Bill was passed recently, so it sounds like it is going to be hard to change, or even be tweaked any time soon. Lets be honest, what might be important for Cheatham County and its future, might not be as important for the rest of the State. There are a lot of issues, and if there is something that Lawmakers don’t want to discuss, the bill will get killed early.

    The best thing that I can do, if elected to the office, is start asking questions and talking with other Lawmakers, and see where they stand, and how we can work together to make the law work better for everyone. Thats one special interest group that I did not get a questionnaire from, and I got many. So, I know the others did as well.

    Beware of the politician who says they are GOING to do this or that in the legislature when elected. Like I said, they have one vote, and depending on which political party they are affiliated with, will also determine their vote.

    Like I’ve been saying since I joined the race, its not about you and me Mat, its all about the Political party and what they want for their special interest friends. Its all about campaign donations. Without it, they don’t have the money to spend on these elections. Money talks, and we, the middle class will always pay for it in many ways. I hope with my win in November, that it will start a trend, and others like me, will start to step up and run for office, and turn the government around to work for the people again.

    I believe that I am a lot like you Mat. I’m a frustrated registered Republican. I get to vote in the August Primary for one of the Republican candidates. I will be voting for someone who I believe WILL closely represent MY views. Will that person win….Wow, who knows!

    This Primary is going to be a toss up to me. Primary’s don’t generate a lot of voters, so I expect voter turn out to be low. So its all going to depend on who has the most family and friends in the County. Then who can generate the most energy with the ones who might take the time to vote August 2nd.

    I guess I didn’t answer your question, but I didn’t give you a BS answer either. I gave you the best, and honest answer that I could.

    I am confident that I can represent the district well. I want to work together with everyone possible to come up solutions, not dictate them. How can you go wrong with that philosophy? That is exactly what I use to do when I worked in Air Terminal Operations at Dover AFB, Delaware. Being an Airman at 22 years of age, I was very respected by my peers, as I brought Sergeants, and officers together, to work out problems or situations. At no time did I ever tell someone how to do their job, but only made suggestions, and was told that if my suggestions would or would not work. True, the Military wasn’t a bunch of arrogant politicians, but I still believe communication can work today.

    Vote Independent on November 6th. Vote for Rick Wilson for State Representative!

    Thanks Mat,

    Rick Wilson
    Independent Candidate Tennessee State Representative 78th District

    • binkleym says:

      Thanks for your reply Rick! That was a great response. While I definitely have my thoughts on the issue, this is less about getting a right-or-wrong answer, and more about getting insight into the candidate’s thinking, about how (or whether) they go from A to B to C.

      Too often society gets caught up in “Republican vs Democrat” catfights, when the true battle is between wisdom, and ignorance masquerading as wisdom. Bertrand Russell said “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” And sadly that goes double in politics.

      I listened to the forum on 790 AM, but most of the time was spent describing where candidates came from, essentially reading resumes, not their policies, priorities, or vision for our district and for the state. I had intended to ask the internet question during the Chamber forums, but it was cancelled, so I decided to re-think things a bit, and ask additional questions on interesting issues. I posted the internet question because I already had it on hand, and because compared to many political questions a candidate will face it has fewer shades of grey.

      You are correct that people don’t necessarily think about the internet, but about jobs. While robust infrastructure is decidedly unglamorous, it is a necessity if you want to attract those higher-paying jobs. Part of Cheatham’s problem is we have neglected to make those investments, and thus failed to attract those types of jobs. And so we’re stuck with lower-paying jobs like Walgreens and Wal-Mart, and while they do help, I haven’t heard of any locals retiring as millionaires because of them. We desperately need to start attracting profitable (in economics terms, not merely accounting terms) companies.

      Given the recent Supreme Court decision, the state of healthcare reform in Tennessee is probably my next question, but I don’t want to beat candidates to death so I’ll pop that up some time next week.

  2. Donnie Kemp says:

    Matt,
    Thanks for posing this question. A large percentage of citizens in our area don’t have access to Internet. That is a real problem as the Internet aids businesses in efficient communication and e-commerce, students with new learning initiatives and the ability to research with ease, and private citizens with being able to stay connected to friends and family. Increasingly, many government agencies and taxing authorities are requiring use of the Internet to file forms and pay fees/taxes. Not having access to the Internet greatly impacts the efficiency and ability to compete in today’s world for many.
    This scenario hits home for me. One of my daughters is an elementary school teacher who routinely uses the Internet to record grades in the online grading system used by the school system. Until recently, she lived in one of the areas in our community without access to the Internet. This placed quite a hardship on her when trying to perform her duties as teacher.
    What can be done? In the 2008 legislation passed, road blocks were placed in the way of municipalities and public utility companies forbidding those organizations from incurring debt to build infrastructure. Why not remove that impediment? Let’s allow the municipalities and public utility companies to acquire debt to put the needed infrastructure in place and compete in the market with private companies.
    As state representative, I will do whatever I can do to facilitate the people of the 78th district having broadband access. It is crucial that we stay up to date with today’s technology so as to be competitive in business, to have the best education experience and to stay in touch with the world around us.
    Again, thank you for allowing me to answer this question. I look forward to more thought provoking questions from you. Give my best to your parents. Great folks!

  3. Mathew, thanks for inviting me to respond to your questions regarding broadband access. I had sent an earlier blog but you indicated that somehow it was not received on your end. So, let me try again!

    New research reported by Connected Tennessee shows the broadband availability gap in our state is shrinking. Some of their stats include:

    * 92% of rural households in Tennessee now have access to fixed broadband service of at least 768 Kbps
    * 92% of our households can access broadband srevice, including mobile wireless
    * 88% of state households can access fixed broadband service of speeds of at least 10 Mbps
    * Basic broadband is available to 95% of Tennessee households
    * 81% of Tennessee households have the ability to choose broadband service from two or more non-mobile broadband providers

    I know these stats are not much comfort still to those in the rural areas of Dickson and Cheatham counties who still have to use dial-up. And, I agree that to attract more businesses and to assist our students and teachers, we need to make this access available as quickly and efficiently as possible.

    I promised to my supporters when I entered this race that I would not make false promises and campaign that I would fix everything for everyone. That is not possible, and I think citizens can see through that completely.

    Proposed legislation amendments, of course, go through committees before coming to the floor. If legislation comes to a vote in the house and it looks like a positive change can come from it, I will vote for it.

    Once again, thanks for giving me this opportunity.

  4. binkleym says:

    Thanks for your reply Linda. I have to point out though that Connected Tennessee isn’t a grassroots organization, it’s actually a astroturf organization run by private ISP’s like Comcast and AT&T and thus its numbers are inherently suspect. Please see the link below for an article about their parent organization, “Connected Nation”.

    http://minnesotaindependent.com/45559/bypassing-own-task-force-pawlenty-to-hand-broadband-map-funds-to-telecoms

    I have actually wandered around northern Cheatham county and made my own map of AT&T cabinets that provide DSL or U-Verse (look for a cabinet labeled either “ADSL” or “VRAD”), and Connect Tennessee’s map of Cheatham broadband resources is inaccurate to say the least. My parent’s house shows as having both DSL and cable available, but our calls to the companies have always ended with “we don’t service that area and have no plans to.”

    As an industry-funded organization, they have every incentive to exaggerate/fudge/blatantly lie about broadband deployment to keep the legislature and Tennessee Regulatory Authority off their back and keep milking the public.

  5. binkleym says:

    And another link which shows how far we are behind other major countries both in speed and in price.

    http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2012/07/tokyo-seoul-and-paris-get-faster-cheaper-broadband-than-us-cities/

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