Critic derides Chattanooga mayor’s ‘Obamaphone’ program

May 05, 2015

Tennessee WatchDog

Good news, those of you Chattanooga residents with a child in a school’s free and reduced lunch program: Mayor Andy Berke wants to slash your monthly Internet subscription costs by half.

That is, as long as you’re a subscriber to Chattanooga’s government-owned Internet. The city offers the service through its public utility, the Electric Power Board.

If you don’t qualify for the free lunch program then you’re still stuck paying $57.99 a month for 100 megabytes per second.

University of Denver professor Ronald Rizzuto, who has studied GONs nationwide, said he hasn’t heard of another public utility with a similar program.

EPB took $111 million in federal stimulus money in 2011 to help create its own ultra-high speed Internet to compete against private providers like Comcast.

Berke spokeswoman Lacie Stone said the mayor’s proposal is about guaranteeing something called “digital equity.”

More plainly defined, it would provide everybody with equal access to the Internet, since Berke and other city officials see that as public infrastructure, no different than interstates or sewers.

Chattanooga Tea Party President Mark West has another term for Berke’s idea.

“This is Andy Berke’s version of the Obamaphone,” West said.

“He is being the Santa Claus of the Internet for Chattanooga. There is no doubt about it. Honestly, if this is something they want to do then they should approach different private foundations and raise money from them to do this instead.”

Chattanooga currently has about 15,200 students on the free and reduced lunch program, said EPB spokesman John Pless.

Berke announced the plan at his annual State of the City address last week. EPB’s board of directors still has to give and OK, and it hasn’t been determined when they will discuss it, Pless said.

“If approved by the EPB Board, our goal is to make this program available at the beginning of the next school year,” Pless said in an email to Tennessee Watchdog.

Pless also said there are no additional costs involved and taxpayers are not on the hook for this program — even though EPB is ultimately backed by taxpayer money.

Wi-Fi connectivity and other Internet access is seemingly everywhere, but Pless said lower-income students shouldn’t have to go to a public library or fast food joint to surf online.

“Many families who struggle with their finances have limited means of transportation, and with parents working multiple jobs during all shifts, access to libraries and other institutions during their hours of operation is limited,” Pless said.

West said he worries programs like this won’t give people in a lower income bracket an incentive to lift themselves out of poverty.

“If they feel like there is no incentive to leave then why would you leave?” West asked.

“But for labor pains we’d all be fine to stay in our mother’s womb. It’s nice and cozy and warm. But certain things push us out of the nest. What we’re doing here is we’re surrounding and coddling and saying ‘Stay in the nest. Don’t break out.’”

Rizzuto said he thinks programs such as EPB’s are good. He even pointed to the fact that Comcast, a private provider, has a similar program.

“I’m favorably disposed to this, but at the time same time I would not let Chattanooga off the hook,” Rizzuto said.

“I would say ‘You need to run this like a business. Otherwise the electric utility ratepayers are subsidizing it. You are forcing them to do this.”

Requests for comment from Comcast, other private Internet providers in Chattanooga and the Hamilton County Department of Education were not returned last week or this week.