All Right, Metro Council, It's Time to Pick Your Megacorporation

Here’s the ridiculous situation we’re left with: A company worth half-a-trillion dollars is seeking relief from the Metro Council to string high-speed internet lines because companies worth $240 billion and $150 billion, respectively, have dug in their heels.

Welcome to the world of broadband access, where legislators are just proxy fighters in a prelude to the next round of litigation.

If you haven’t been paying attention, the “One Touch Make Ready” bill goes before the Metro Council on Tuesday, a way to supposedly make it easier for companies to move the lines on power poles so they can hang their own fiber optic cables. As it stands, if Google, who’s been promising us fiber speeds and competition for two-and-a-half years now, wants to move AT&T or Comcast’s lines, they have to wait for those companies to come move them.

The recriminations are everywhere. AT&T and Comcast claim that Google crews have screwed up their lines in the past. Google says its rollout has been much slower than necessary because of foot-dragging by the other two. AT&T says Google is trying to bully Nashville and take jobs away from union crews. Google claims that AT&T just wants to make things so slow that Google will eventually leave the market in frustration.

Of course, there’s an element of truth to all of it. This would be a lot easier, mind you, if Google could just bury their lines as they’ve done in other markets, but we built this city on top of a giant slab of rock, so it’s up on the poles everything goes. And we’re left with AT&T’s lawyers ready to file suit on jurisdictional grounds if the council passes the bill, just as they did in Louisville.

So council members who have to vote on Tuesday night are officially damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

At-Large Councilman Bob Mendes does something that, as a citizen, I wish more elected officials would do — he blogs on issues before the council on his site. Here’s what he said before last week’s vote on second reading:

“Honestly, it is a close call about who is being the least cooperative in working something out while we wait for the Louisville litigation to get resolved,” he writes. “As of today, my opinion is that Google is (just barely) being the least cooperative in reaching a compromise agreement. For this reason, if I had to vote today, I would be leaning toward voting against the bill on second reading.”

His rationale, and it has merit, is that getting Nashville involved in a court fight over broadband is dumb when the exact same thing is already playing out in Louisville. He wants Mayor Barry to go back to shuttle diplomacy between the telecom giants to try to reach a solution, something that didn’t work before.

Mendes’ argument that Google is (just barely) the bad guy here is rooted in the belief that the search giant miscalculated what it would take to enter the Nashville market and then pivoted to a legislative solution, betting that consumers would pressure the council, which they have.

But the reason why the mayor’s mediation efforts are likely to fail is exactly why Mendes and everyone else should vote for One Touch Make Ready — AT&T screwed the state and Barry’s negotiating power last spring.

Faced with a bill that would have expanded municipal broadband around the state, AT&T unleashed an army of lobbyists — 27 by one legislator’s estimation — to kill the bill. They can’t have any more situations like the one in Chattanooga, where the city brings in 1 gigabit speeds to every home and business in the county. Nope, can’t have Mayor Barry threatening to roll out fiber through NES if the warring parties don’t get their acts together.

House Speaker Beth Harwell, in announcing her opposition at the time, said her “preference would be that the private sector take this over.” Well, here we are, private sectoring the crap out of this situation, lobbyists and lawyers at the ready, with only a few buildings downtown to show for Google Fiber’s rollout. AT&T, which successfully fought competition from cities in the legislature, is now fighting competition from Google in the council.

Mendes writes, ruefully, “Is it really a 21st century solution to have a minimum of three companies all deploying literally identical sets of glass fiber on our telephone poles?” Nope, it’s not. But since internet access is indispensable to business and the daily lives of most of us, this is what we’re stuck with now that the state has big-footed localities yet again.

So what Mendes and the rest of the council should do is vote for One Touch Make Ready and get the lawyers ready. Make it unanimous and send a message. If we can’t have the better solution — municipal broadband — let’s at least have the one that guarantees the most carriers in the market. No matter what you may think of Google’s tactics here, the best move for Nashville is to have as much competition as possible.

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