Commentary

FCC's Wheeler Touts Benefits Of Muni Broadband

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler strongly hinted today that the agency plans to invalidate state laws that prevent municipalities from building their own broadband networks.

Currently, 19 states restrict the ability of cities and towns to build fiber-optic broadband networks. Two cities in those states -- Wilson, N.C. and Chattanooga, Tenn. -- recently petitioned the FCC to preempt those laws. Both of those cities built their own networks, which offered far faster service than what was available from the incumbents. But laws in both states are hindering other cities from doing the same.

Even though Wheeler said he wasn't making any promises about the fate of those petitions, the FCC Chairman left no doubt about his feelings on the matter. “The advantages of competition are so obvious and ingrained in the American psyche that many local communities have stepped up to facilitate it where the private sector has not,” he told the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors, according to a transcript of his speech.

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Wheeler segued to an anecdote about muni network in Lafayette, La., which was built despite heavy opposition. “The local incumbent fought the city’s fiber network tooth and nail, bringing multiple court challenges and triggering a local referendum on the project,” Wheeler continued.

“Thankfully, none of the challenges managed to prevent deployment -- 62% of voters approved of the network in the referendum, and the Louisiana Supreme Court unanimously sided with the city.”

He added: “When the network was finally built, the community experienced the benefits of competition, as the local cable operator decided to upgrade its network.”

This isn't the first time that Wheeler has criticized state restrictions on muni-broadband. Now, however, those remarks could carry more weight, given that the FCC is expected to rule on the validity of those laws.

Advocacy groups, tech companies and Democrats on Capitol Hill are joining Wilson and Chattanooga in asking the FCC to preempt state restrictions.

On the other side of the issue, states' rights groups and some Republicans in Washington, D.C. say the FCC should stay out of the issue. At least one group, the National Conference of State Legislatures, has vowed to sue to prevent any FCC preemptions from taking effect. Which means that even if the FCC moves quickly to invalidate state restrictions, the matter could linger in court for quite a while.

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