The public utility in Chattanooga, Tenn., not only provides fast internet at a low cost, but could lay the groundwork for progressive politics in the South. (COURTESY OF EPB FIBER OPTICS)

From Sewer Socialism to Server Socialism: Appalachia’s Internet Revolution

Chattanoogans are pioneering public broadband.

BY Chris Brooks

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Even as lack of internet service affordability is widening America’s digital divide, it may also be laying a foundation for a new kind of politics.

MCDONALD, TENN.—Life in the small unincorporated community of McDonald, which sits among the rolling rivers and smoky mountain ridges of Appalachia, was supposed to be paradise for Trina Pyke and her family.

Pyke, a 60-year-old grandmother who moved to the United States from Venezuela at age 9, lives in a picturesque threestory log cabin built by her husband. “I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” says Pyke. “This is Eden.”

But life in Eden is a digital hell.

Because no one has invested in laying fiber optic cables through the mountains, Pyke, like many rural Americans, must rely on relatively slow satellite internet with data caps. This made returning to school a nightmare for Pyke, who just graduated with her master’s degree in nursing education. When her family met their monthly data limit of 15 gigabytes, download and upload times plummeted.

For nursing school, “We had to transfer data and upload papers,” Pyke says. “Fifteen gigabytes just evaporated in a few days.”

Pyke spent hours at the library accessing the internet, away from home and her 85-year-old mother, who has Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease, and requires diligent care.

Now, Pyke is one of a number of activists across the state partnering with publicly owned internet providers to push for expanding fiber optic services to rural communities. Pyke is working with the Electric Power Board (EPB), a public utility run by the neighboring city of Chattanooga, which doubles as an internet service provider.

EPB got into the internet business in 1999, after the state government passed a law making public internet utilities legal. Unfortunately, that same law had a last-minute provision banning public utilities from expanding community broadband into areas where they don’t sell electricity.

EPB could provide Pyke with internet access with no data cap at speeds at least four times as fast as what she currently has—and for the same price. At that speed, “My brother in Colombia could FaceTime our mother,” Pyke says.

The EPB’s mission as a public utility includes addressing the institutional barriers that maintain the “digital divide”—the gap between those who have internet access and those who do not. In 2015, EPB partnered with nearby Hamilton County’s department of education to launch the NetBridge Student Discount Program, which provides low-cost, high-speed internet to households with children in the Free and Reduced Meals Program. J. Ed. Marston, EPB’s vice president for marketing, says EPB would have provided the service at an even lower price, but was again hamstrung by a different state law, this one barring utilities from selling services below cost.

But even as lack of internet service affordability and the repeal of net neutrality are widening America’s digital divide, they may also be laying a foundation for a new kind of politics.

Darren Hodge, a 49-year-old union sheet metal worker and turkey hunting enthusiast, is running for county commissioner in neighboring Rhea County, Tenn.

Hodge, who says he was raised “ultra-conservative Republican,” became a “run-of-the-mill Democrat” with the election of Obama, whose “upbeat inclusive message spoke hope to a dismal economy” at a time when he and his family were suffering financially. Changing parties was a pretty big change, but not nearly as big as what happened after he heard Bernie Sanders speak in the last presidential primary.

“It was like a lightswitch was flipped,” says Hodge. “Bernie spoke to my heart. Medicare for all, livable wages, getting rid of TPP—those issues were like a wake-up call for me.”

Hodge was inspired to run on a populist platform that includes eschewing corporate donations, supporting unions, raising wages and eliminating the legal barriers to expanding EPB service to his county.

“We have outages, slow internet,” he says. “There are some places in this county that don’t have any internet access at all. We need to boost our infrastructure, including high-speed internet for students.”

Promoting publicly owned companies and expanding infrastructure investment in poor, rural communities—all while wearing camo and driving a truck? Sounds like the right ingredients for a resurgence of Southern socialism. 

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Chris Brooks is a staff writer and labor educator at Labor Notes.

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