Commentary

Democratic Lawmakers Urge Wheeler To Promote Muni-Broadband

Democratic lawmakers are pressing Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler to make good on his promise to vacate state laws that restrict muni-broadband.

“What the broadband market needs today are more options and greater local choice, not barriers that prevent cities and towns from participating fully in the global economy,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said in a statement issued on Tuesday. “I encourage the Commission to use its authority to ensure municipalities have the power to make decisions about their broadband infrastructure.”

Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) expressed a similar statement. “I strongly encourage [Wheeler] and the FCC to take quick and decisive action to lift restrictions that limit or prevent communities from addressing their own broadband needs,” Doyle stated.

Markey and Doyle were among the lawmakers who wrote to Wheeler earlier this summer, urging him to use the “full arsenal of tools” at the FCC's disposal to promote broadband deployment.

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Wheeler first proposed doing away with restrictions on muni broadband as part of a package for new net neutrality regulations. Even though consumer advocates criticize other aspects of the plan -- especially the proposal that would allow providers to create pay-for-play fast lanes -- they tend to support Wheeler on muni-broadband.

Largely, that's because muni-broadband often offers a cheaper and faster alternative to the service provided by cable companies and telecoms. What's more, the mere existence of muni networks can exert the kind of competitor pressure that will discourage incumbents from interfering with traffic.

In the last several years, a host of cities that built their own fiber-to-the-home networks were able to offer local residents and businesses fast, relatively inexpensive service. For example, in 2010 the city of Chattanooga, Tenn. began rolling out what was then the fastest network in the country: fiber-to-the-home connections with maximum speeds of 1 Gbps.

Two years earlier, when Wilson, N.C. rolled out its fiber-optic network, the city was able to offer residents the speediest, cheapest network in the area.

Incumbent providers responded by lobbying for new laws restricting cities from creating their own broadband networks. Those efforts often succeeded. At this point, almost two dozen states -- including Tennessee and North Carolina -- have restricted cities from building their own networks.

Some Republican lawmakers have weighed in against FCC action, as has the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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 said in a letter sent to Wheeler last month. The organization went on to threaten to sue the FCC for enacting rules that would “diminish the duly adopted laws of the impacted states.”

For his part, Wheeler recently reiterated his criticism of anti-broadband laws. “Many states have enacted laws that place a range of restrictions on communities' ability to invest in their own future,” he wrote to lawmakers last week. “There is reason to believe that these laws have the effect of limiting competition in those areas, contrary to almost two decades of bipartisan federal communications policy that is focused on encouraging competition.”

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