An Open Letter to Tennessee’s* High School Students — Take Charge of Your Futures

I was excited to read an article today in the Tennessean about Williamson County High School students proactively registering student voters — 800 of them!

http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/2016/04/25/williamson-schools-registers-more-than-800-students-vote/83494160/

This is especially important to me as a citizen of Jefferson County who actively promoted bills in the recent session of the Tennessee Legislature to bring fiber optic broadband and high speed internet to the County from Morristown. The House version of the bill was killed in committee by legislators who were influenced by lobbyists from AT&T and other legacy providers who didn’t want the competition.

It’s important to all of Tennessee’s students who don’t have access to broadband and high speed internet in their homes.

To be clear, the bill’s failure did not affect me. I have internet at home and in my office. But some 30% of Tennessee’s students don’t, and that poses a serious threat to the quality of their education.

The sad thing is that in 1999, the Legislators passed a bill allowing public electric utilities to enter the broadband arena because providers like AT&T, Comcast, Charter Communications and others would not. The utilities were limited to serving their own electric customers.

Then, like now, the providers fought it — but lost. Comcast went further and sued the city of Chattanooga, and lost.

What you need to know is that seven utilities took the plunge, Morristown among them. They spent the money, installed fiber optics and left the rest of the state in the dust. Chattanooga added close to 3,000 new jobs, many of them high tech. Business incubators moved in, some of them from nearby Knoxville, which decided not to pursue fiber. Tiny Pulaski added a couple thousand jobs; Morristown attracted a call center, which is on its way to adding some five hundred jobs.

The bill the Legislature killed would have allowed those utilities to expand their operations to counties around them. In our case, Morristown could have brought broadband — in as little as six months to some areas.

I went to see our representatives in the Legislature on opening day of the session. They were very open to the importance of this bill — for students, for businesses and for adults. Each one told me the same thing: “If the bill makes it for a vote, I’ll be happy to vote for it.” And, each one of them then said, “It’s not going to make it to us, though. AT&T has lobbyists all over the Capitol, with plenty of money to make sure the bills fail.”

How did they know that, especially as early as opening day and weeks before, the bills would even be reviewed? Because this had happened before, many times, and each time lobbyist money prevailed at your and Tennessee’s expense.

Here’s what Not having internet means to the County. It means that:

  • Students who work on projects during class cannot access the internet to do their homework. Some students make do with going to fast-food restaurants that have Wi-Fi access. Others try to do their homework on their smart phones. If they go over their data limit, their parents get huge phone bills
  • Some Jefferson County businesses in areas without internet access are at risk to global competitors that do. It means local jobs are threatened and, by extension workers’ families

The providers could have brought fiber in if they wanted to. They’ve had over ten years to do it but it just wasn’t profitable enough for them to go into rural areas. So, in a manner of speaking, this is what they said to their politicians: “We don’t want to install fiber optic cable. It’s too expensive. But we don’t want anyone else doing it, either.” Lawmakers got the message and, to paraphrase Jean-luc Picard, they “made it so”.

This is not the way democracy is supposed to work but it’s is exactly the way it does work.

Now, it’s bad enough that the legislators killed the bill but Governor Haslam himself came out against the bill — again, before the bill even came up for a vote. He said it was ‘Unfair’ to AT&T. http://www.govtech.com/state/Tennessee-Governor-Voices-Criticism-on-State-Broadband-Bill.html

Shortly after the governor’s statement, his Political Action Committee (PAC) received a donation of $10,000, the Lt. Governor’s PAC also received $10,000, and Speaker of the House Beth Harwell’s re-election campaign received $7,500. State Senators and Representatives also received donations. You can find them at www.followthemoney.org.

To make matters worse, a week or so after his comments, a report by the Center for Economic Research in Tennessee was made public (http://www.bizjournals.com/nashville/blog/2016/03/robots-taking-over-half-of-tennessee-jobs-at-risk.html). The report said, in no uncertain terms, 1.4 MILLION Tennessee jobs are at risk of replacement by automation over the next few years. That’s HALF of all the jobs in Tennessee!

Commissioner Randy Boyd responded by saying two solutions are the Drive to 55 education initiative and free community college to qualifying graduating high school students. He may be right — to a point.

I ask you to be the judge. Do you really believe that we can replace 1.4 MILLION jobs in this way? What about the people who are displaced? Most of them are veteran employees, people without the skills to get other jobs right away. And, how many years worth of graduates will it take to make up for those losses.

And there’s this. If adults can’t access the internet to broaden their training options, where are they going to get access to the knowledge needed to get their next jobs? If they’re out of work, what happens to their families?

Students, you are the ones whose future is in question. If not you, huge number of your classmates. And, given that the bill prevents expansion for years to come, it includes a third of JCHS’ future students, your siblings perhaps.

This is a reality check, my young friends. The government is not your friend. Your elders may have elected the legislators but the legislators are not working for them — or for you. Soon, you’ll be able to vote these guys out of office and build a better Tennessee.

You are a generation of digital students in a society run by analog politicians. They operate in a world characterized by back room deals. That world is changing because of the internet, which gives you access to the truth from links like www.followthemoney.org and www.wikileaks.org and social media through which you can unite and stay informed.

The reality is that, if you want a better world, it’s up to you to create that world. It’s up to you to unite to identify and solve the issues that you face in your lives. And that is best done with a free and open internet for everyone and transparent governments everywhere. It may not be your job or your career but active political involvement is essential for better lives for all the world’s citizens. Don’t let analog politicians regulate your lives and the lives of your families.

I ask you to follow the lead of the students of Williamson County. Register to vote and get active in demanding your rights.

Joe Malgeri

Dandridge

  • While I addressed this to Tennessee High School students, the fact is, legislatures in another 19 states, mostly in the South, have similar restrictive laws holding their own citizens back.
  • And, while it might shock you that Tennessee’s workforce stands to lose half their jobs, the fact is that 47% of all the nation’s jobs are at risk.

So, if you’re reading this, and you’re not from Tennessee, know now that your state is every bit as much at risk. There’s plenty that people can do about this, but in the 20 states, sad to say, citizens are going to have to toss their leaders first.

JM