But Wheeler is backing at least one idea that groups fighting to improve broadband access are likely to support: He wants to end restrictions on municipal networks.
When cities build their own fiber-to-the-home networks, residents often can get better broadband service than what the incumbent providers offered. For instance, when Wilson, N.C. rolled out its fiber-optic network in 2008, the city was able to offer residents the fastest and cheapest network in the area. In 2010, the city of Chattanooga, Tenn. began rolling out the then-fastest broadband network in the country: fiber-to-the-home connections with minimum speeds of 30 Mbps and maximum speeds of 1 Gbps.
What's more, muni networks are seen as advancing open Internet principles by enabling widespread broadband access. In other words, those networks can exert real competitive pressure on telecoms and cable companies, which in itself might discourage them from degrading traffic or otherwise interfering with people's ability to use the Web.
But incumbent Internet service providers evidently don't want the added competition. They are responding to the prospect of muni broadband by lobbying state lawmakers to restrict municipal networks. Often, these efforts have succeeded. In North Carolina, several years after Wilson set the standard for muni-broadband, the incumbent providers convinced lawmakers to restrict new municipal networks. Tennessee also has a law on the books that prevents Chattanooga's network from expanding.
Overall, almost two dozen states have laws that limit local towns' ability to build their own fiber-to-the-home networks.
But that could change, if Wheeler follows through on his promises. This week, he reiterated his position that the FCC should use its authority to invalidate those restrictions. “I believe that it is in the best interests of consumers and competition that the FCC exercises its power to preempt state laws that ban or restrict competition from community broadband. Given the opportunity, we will do so,” Wheeler said this week in a blog post.
Two months ago, in a speech delivered at the National Cable and Telecommunications Association’s Cable Show, Wheeler expressed a similar sentiment. “If municipal governments -- the same ones that granted cable franchises -- want to pursue it, they shouldn’t be inhibited by state laws,” he said, according to a transcript of his speech. “I have said before, that I believe the FCC has the power -- and I intend to exercise that power -- to preempt state laws that ban competition from community broadband.”