An organization representing state lawmakers is protesting Federal Communication Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler's plan to nix laws that restrict municipal broadband.
“As you consider your course of action on this matter, we encourage you to heed the principles of federalism and caution you of the numerous decisions by the United States Supreme Court with regard to the relationship between the state and its political subdivisions,” the National Conference of State Legislatures says in a letter sent to Wheeler this week.
The group goes on to threaten to sue the FCC for enacting rules that would “diminish the duly adopted laws of the impacted states or prevent additional states from exercising their well-established rights to govern in the best interests of the voters.”
The NCSL adds that any FCC attempt to nix state regulations over broadband “disregards the countless hours of deliberation and votes cast by locally elected lawmakers across the country and supplants it with the impulses of a five-member appointed body in Washington, D.C.”
The organization is responding to Wheeler's vow to invalidate any state restrictions on muni broadband. He first talked about doing so as part of a package for new net neutrality regulations. Later, Wheeler took an even more strident tone. “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 in a June blog post.
Even though neutrality advocates criticize other elements of Wheeler's broadband plans -- especially the proposal that would allow providers to create pay-for-play fast lanes -- neutrality proponents generally support Wheeler's plan to end restrictions on municipal networks.
Neutrality proponents generally argue that municipal networks exert competitive pressure on incumbent Internet service providers, resulting in cheaper prices and faster service for residents of towns that have built their own networks. The best-known example is probably Chattanooga, Tenn., which in 2010 began rolling out a 1 Gbps network -- the fastest in the country, at the time.
Faced with the threat of competition from local cities, incumbent providers are lobbying state lawmakers to restrict municipalities from creating their own broadband networks. Currently, almost two dozen states restrict muni-broadband -- including Tennessee, where a recent law prohibits Chattanooga's network from expanding.
Some Republicans in Congress are siding against Wheeler on this issue. In fact, the House recently approved a measure aimed at blocking the FCC from getting involved in state battles over muni-broadband.
On the other hand, organizations representing cities and counties like Wheeler's plan to trump state restrictions, as do Democrats in the Senate. A group of Democratic lawmakers recently sent Wheeler a letter praising his plan to boost community broadband. The Democrats have asked Wheeler to present a specific plan for community broadband by next week.