telecommunications

State Department of Revenue gets oversight of phone bill fees

A state law that took effect in July may end legal disputes between Tennessee’s local emergency communications districts and telecommunications companies over 911 fees by giving new authority to the state Department of Revenue, reports the Times Free Press.

Sponsored by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and Rep. Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma, the bill was passed in 2016. It puts the department in charge of ensuring telecommunications firms such as AT&T collect and turn over state-mandated surcharges on landline and cellphone bills. The fees go to county 911 centers to provide operations and support for fire, police, medical and other emergency communications.

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Long-running lawsuit over TN phone bills and 911 fees set for trial in 2019

A lawsuit contending that telephone companies shortchanged Hamilton County 911 and nine other Tennessee communities of millions of dollars in fees they collected from consumers is now scheduled for trial in 2019, reports the Times Free Press.

Apart from the date, attorneys had little else to agree on during a status hearing Thursday in Chattanooga’s U.S. District Court.

“I’m not suggesting bad faith, your honor, but the strategy is to delay,” said attorney Rick Hitchcock, who has represented Hamilton County 911 since 2011. Hitchcock wants AT&T, BellSouth and other companies to turn over decades of billing information so he can prove the telecom giants knew they were pocketing fees in violation of a 911 law.

“The simple calculation is, how many lines were in service and how many 911 charges did they collect to distribute?” Hitchcock asked. “It’s A minus B. And if it equals zero, then they have nothing to worry about. But it doesn’t.”

But company attorneys rejected that equation, pointing to the enormous amount of data.

“We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of bills in more than a dozen counties going back to 1984,” said attorney Misty Kelly. “We would have to identify what historical records exist for several companies.”

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Broadband bill gets ceremonial signing treatment

News release from the governor’s office

BROWNSVILLE – Before a meeting of the Governor’s Rural Development Task Force at H&R Agri-Power, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam held a ceremonial signing of the Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act, the governor’s legislation to increase broadband access to Tennessee’s unserved citizens.

The Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act permits Tennessee’s private, nonprofit electric cooperatives to provide retail broadband service, and it provides $45 million over three years in grants and tax credits for service providers to assist in making broadband available to unserved homes and businesses. In addition, the plan makes grant funding available to the state’s local libraries to help residents improve their digital literacy skills and maximize the benefits of broadband.
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Senate votes to repeal voter ‘selfie’ ban violated by Justin Timberlake

State senators voted unanimously Thursday to repeal the law Justin Timberlake famously violated last year and allow “selfie” pictures to be taken at polling places.

Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey noted in brief remarks on the Senate floor that Timberlake made “national and international news” by taking a picture of himself while voting “in my hometown of Germantown” and posting it on the Internet.

The celebrity entertainer said later he did not realize he was violating a state law, which was passed in 2015 with Kelsey as Senate sponsor. He was not prosecuted.

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Blackburn a star in Internet privacy debate

Tennessee’s Marsha Blackburn got national attention for her leading role in the U.S. House’s approval of a bill widely characterized as repealing existing Internet privacy protections, including Friday some data-crunching on campaign finances by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican and vocal proponent of killing the rule, said this week that allowing the FTC and FCC to regulate different parts of the internet will “create confusion within the Internet ecosystem and end up harming consumers.”

Critics of that view say it’s hard to see how stronger protection of consumer privacy will hurt those consumers. In addition, ISPs “provide an essential service,” said Laura Moy, a visiting law professor at Georgetown University and expert on technology and the law — and many Americans have little or no choice about their providers. “Maybe the answer is to regulate everyone more closely.”

… We took a look at the contributions received by members of the House and Senate from the telecom industry.

Here’s what we found: On the House side, while there wasn’t a huge difference in overall funds received by lawmakers voting for or against the resolution, there was a gap in the Republican vote. GOP lawmakers who voted to quash the rule received an average of $138,000 from the industry over the course of their careers.

The 15 Republicans voting nay? They got just $77,000… Blackburn has received close to $564,000 from the telecom industry over the course of her House career.

As noted by the Nashville Scene, Late Show host Steven Colbert lampooned Blackburn a bit over the matter:

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Haslam’s rural broadband service bill amended to include video

Tennessee’s rural electric cooperatives will be allowed to offer video to customers as well as broadband services under an amended version of Gov. Bill Haslam’s Broadband Accessibility Act, reports the Times-Free Press.

In response to concerns raised by proponents of broadband expansion, the governor added video offerings to the legislation as it moved through the House Business and Utilities Subcommittee on Tuesday.

“The administration and interested parties have made a good bill even better,” Assistant Majority Leader David Hawk, R-Greeneville, who is carrying the governor’s bill (HB529) told panel members.

While the bill’s goal is make broadband internet accessible in the state’s underserved areas, Hawk noted, “we also want broadband to be adopted.”

Allowing the nonprofit electric co-ops to have cable-like television offerings is a way of doing that in rural Tennessee where 34 percent of residents don’t have broadband access, the leader noted.

The offering of video also is widely viewed as a means of offering high-speed broadband for businesses, health care offices and facilities and residential users financially viable. The legislation prohibits the electric co-ops from cross-subsidizing their broadband operations from power revenues and would be required to create stand-alone broadband operations.

Moreover, the state’s 23 co-ops would only be able to offer video within their current service areas under the legislation.

Blackburn holds broadband conference, bans media coverage

U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn met with “what appeared to be at least 100 area business and electrical coop executives at Columbia State Community College” – plus, reportedly, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission – but barred media from attending, according to the Marshall County Tribune.

When your editor of the Marshall County Tribune attempted to gain access to the meeting, Blackburn’s Press Secretary Abby Lemons said, “This meeting is closed to press. This meeting is off the record.”

…Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) left Blackburn’s meeting to discuss with the Tribune Governor Haslam’s Rural Broadband initiative, announced recently.

The Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act will provide $45 million over three years in grants and tax credits for service providers to assist in making broadband available to unserved homes and businesses. In addition, the law will permit the state’s private, nonprofit electrical cooperatives to provide retail broadband service and make grant funding available to the state’s local libraries to help residents improve digital literacy skills to maximize the benefits of broadband.

Many of the businesses represented at the meeting could be in competition for the same customers.

Tennessee taxpayers will pay for Internet service where it doesn’t exist now, and it might make all internet service faster.

“We need better access, not bigger government,” Sen. Norris said. “Broadband is critical to commerce and the quality of life for every Tennessean and is essential for our current and future education and economic initiatives.”

Haslam’s broadband bill draws some legislator criticism

Some legislators are not sold on Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to provide government subsidies to private telecommunications companies that expand broadband service into rural areas and authorizes non-profit electric cooperatives to offer broadband services, reports the Times-Free Press.

But the governor’s bill does not let municipal electric systems get into the broadband business outside their service areas.  Chattanooga’s Electric Power Board (EPB) has been pushing to do so for years. The bill also would not allow the electric cooperatives to handle money-making cable TV service on their broadband.

Asked why he didn’t include EPB and other municipal electric services, Haslam said, “You have a situation where we’d much rather have private providers rather than government-subsidized entities have the first crack at getting that done.”

… At first blush, state Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, whose district includes underserved areas, wasn’t happy.

“What I wanted is a free and open ability for any elected board of any co-op to make its own decisions what to do,” Carter added. “And it could contract with anyone, including the municipals, private enterprise — anyone — to do that.”

… State Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, said the measure only goes halfway in removing regulatory limits that she said now limit fiber optic service in much of Tennessee “and keeps too many rural citizens from participating in the 21st century digital economy.”

“I’m certainly glad that electric co-ops will be able to retail fiber services under this measure and I think that will be significant,” she said. ” I am amazed that some of the giant, investor-owned telecoms have been able to confuse the conversation by trying to make it about what is fair for the provider, instead of focusing on what is right for the consumer.”

… Investor-owned telephone companies such as AT&T and private cable TV companies such as Comcast and Charter have long objected to having to compete with government entities such as EPB, which they contend have an unfair advantage by not paying income taxes and enjoying government-supported borrowing abilities.

But Bowling said she thinks “it is disingenuous to say you don’t want municipal utilities, which they equate with ‘big government,’ to compete with the private sector when you are giving another $45 million of taxpayer money to these private businesses.

Haslam proposes spending $45M on broadband access

News release from governor’s office

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today announced legislation to increase broadband access to Tennessee’s unserved citizens. Tennessee currently ranks 29th in the U.S. for broadband access, with 34 percent of rural Tennessee residents lacking access at recognized minimum standards.

“From the farmer and the accountant in West Tennessee whose businesses are stifled, to the East Tennessee student who can’t complete her schoolwork at home, a lack of reliable internet access is preventing too many rural Tennesseans, rural communities and our state from reaching its full potential,” Haslam said. “While there is no one solution that can guarantee broadband accessibility to every single Tennessean, this legislation provides a reasonable, responsible path to improve access in a meaningful way through investment, deregulation and education.”

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Former Knoxville News Sentinel capitol bureau chief Tom Humphrey writes about Tennessee politics, government, and legislative news.

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