published Thursday, July 31st, 2014

Marion County wants Chattanooga utility EPB's gigabit Internet

JASPER, Tenn. — Marion County leaders want Chattanooga utility EPB's gigabit Internet, TV and phone services to come their way and will consider supporting legislation to make that legal.

Commissioner Wayne Willis said he wants the board to support bringing EPB's services to "all parts of the county" because local industries and many residents want access to the technology.

"I just wanted to discuss it to see if most of the commissioners were in favor of supporting it," he said.

Commission Chairman Les Price said the issue is something county administrators looked into several years ago, but it never came to fruition.

"It's my understanding that EPB's line comes through Marion County and goes into Jackson County, (Ala.)," he said. "It's right in the area, and I think that's something that needs to be examined."

County Mayor John Graham said he has met with EPB officials multiple times, but current laws do not allow EPB to offer its broadband services outside of its electric service area.

"They're more than anxious to come in here," he said. "I think that's what we need to be in support of -- a law to allow these utility services to go outside of their footprint or service area. Right now, they're not allowed to."

EPB submitted a formal petition last week to the Federal Communications Commission to allow it to compete outside the strictly regulated boundaries enforced by Tennessee legislators.

Harold DePriest, president and CEO of EPB, said that Chattanooga-area communities "should have the right, at the local level, to determine their broadband futures."

There are plans at the state level to do just that, Graham said.

The county's utility provider, Sequatchee Valley Electric Cooperative, was not in favor of EPB coming to Marion initially, he said, but recent talks with that organization have indicated a change of heart.

The last time Graham spoke to SVEC officials about the matter, they said some fiber optics are in place that they might be willing to let EPB use.

"Whether EPB would want to do that, I'm not sure, but [the SVEC] is more open at this point to letting EPB come in here with their fiber optics," he said.

Commissioner Marshall Raines lives in a rural area near the Hamilton County line and is a current EPB customer.

He said he supports bringing the provider to the entire county if that becomes legal.

"It's great," Raines said. "It's wonderful, and it's very economical."

Graham said the board's support for the new legislation would be "the route to go" right now.

It will be important to get the proposed bill in the hands of county commissioners whenever it becomes available, he said, so they can examine it firsthand before making a final decision on whether or not to support it.

Ryan Lewis is based in Marion County. Contact him at ryan lewis34@gmail.com.

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