Knoxville City Council effectively created a new utility Tuesday night to go along with electricity, water, and sewer: broadband internet service.
Council members voted 8-0 with one abstention to approve KUB’s plan to offer high-speed internet to every household in its service area for less than what its private sector competitors charge.
Naturally, private sector competitors like Comcast opposed KUB’s plan and had worked up an alternate plan in which they offered to expand service to new areas.
The three-and-a-half hour discussion over KUB’s plan — which will use a projected $10.60 average rate increase per customer to fund a $440 million electric fiber network — included comments from citizens, business executives, and utility heads as well as Council members.
The fiber network was going to be built regardless of Tuesday’s vote because it’s the backbone of an ongoing upgrade to increase the power grid’s reliability, explained KUB President and CEO Gabe Bolas.
The technology, however, will allow KUB to piggyback on the fiber network to offer high-speed, symmetrical internet service to every one of its customers, Bolas explained.
The service will be faster than what’s currently offered by private companies like Comcast and AT&T and it will cost the average user only $65 a month with no data caps, according to KUB officials.
The service will be provided in areas that currently have no access to internet at all, they said, and special pricing options will be developed for low income customers.
It will, however, take several years for the installation to reach every household yet all customers will begin paying the increased rate next year.
Council members appeared determined to take pains to ensure that the private companies who have provided internet service in Knox County for years got a fair hearing.
Nonetheless, it was clear that the night’s momentum was entirely on KUB’s side.
Andrew Roberto of the 2nd District, who abstained from the final vote, kicked off the evening with a failed attempt to have the issue postponed for at least a month to ensure the public was fully informed and so Council could perform “its due diligence” in the matter.
“Asking for a postponement is not the same thing as asking to kill … KUB broadband,” said At-Large representative Lynne Fugate. “We’re asking a lot of questions tonight we’ve been getting from constituents, and this is our first time as a body to sit together and hear one another talk about this publicly.”
Drawing on her personal experience in banking, Fugate said she understood the feelings of private companies and their employees being forced to compete with an entity that didn’t have to turn a profit.
“It is unfair,” she said. “It feels very unfair to compete with people who don’t have the same constraints that you do as a private business, because private businesses do have to make a profit. They aren’t evil people who don’t want to serve people, they have shareholders and they have different obligations….A utility changes that.”
She continued: “What we may be doing tonight is voting to create a fifth utility which will compete with the private sector, but the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive.”
At-Large representative Amelia Parker stressed the responsibility that Council and KUB have to the poor. Although KUB has agreed to work on ways to ensure that even low-income households have the planned broadband internet service, Parker made it clear that she would be much happier with a firm plan in place or at least some concrete numbers.
“When I think of a low income program, I’m thinking of at least 50,000 households,” she said. “We have to make a commitment to our low income community, and it’s a very large community… There’s no dollar amount set aside, just a promise.”
Parker said she’s afraid that, years down the road, the utility will find a way to subsidize “500 customers” and then stop.
Tommy Smith, who represents the 1st District, finally brought the debate to a close by calling the question as the clock approached 11 p.m.
“The overwhelming voice from the people in the 1st District, at least, is that we should be bold…. I think it’s time we move forward in this new direction. I think ‘bold’ would have been ten years ago, and I think we’re at a point now where we’re behind.”
J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published on June 30, 2021