Commentary

FCC Vacates Restrictions On Muni-Broadband

Earlier today, the Federal Communications Commission voted to impose the kinds of sweeping net neutrality rules that advocates have wanted for the last decade. That vote -- while it's garnering widespread attention -- wasn't the FCC's only significant move today.

The agency also gave municipal broadband a big boost by voting 3-2 to invalidate state laws that restrict towns from building their own fiber-optic networks. As with net neutrality, the muni-broadband vote broke down along partisan lines, with the three Democrats voting to preempt state laws and the two Republicans opposing the measure.

Officially, the FCC granted petitions to invalidate laws in North Carolina and Tennessee -- two of at least 19 states that restrict cities from creating broadband networks. The petitions were filed by Wilson, N.C. and Chattanooga, Tenn. -- both of which created high-speed networks for residents. After Wilson launched its network, lawmakers in the state passed legislation that stymies other towns from following suit; in Tennessee, laws prohibit Chattanooga's network from expanding.

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Many cities that built their own networks did so because residents couldn't obtain high-speed service from the commercial providers. The incumbents responded by lobbying state lawmakers to pass new restrictions on muni-broadband. The result, according to Chairman Tom Wheeler, is that many residents of those states lack easy access to the Web.

“When local leaders have their hands tied, local business and residents endure the consequences,” he stated.

Wheeler mentioned several individuals by name, including Eva VanHook from Bradley County, Tenn., who was present at the hearing. The FCC Chairman told the audience that VanHook must drive her son 12 miles to a nearby church, so that he can access online materials for his school biology class. “State rules keep her from getting the faster -- and cheaper -- Internet service that Chattanooga EPB wants to deliver to her,” Wheeler stated.

The two Republican Commissioners opposed the move, with Ajit Pai calling the order “odd and unlawful.” Some state officials as well as states' rights groups say that the FCC has no basis to set aside local laws.

For his part, Wheeler said that Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act -- which tasks the agency with promoting broadband deployment -- empowers the FCC to lift muni-broadband curbs.

The agency added that lifting prohibitions on muni-broadband “will speed broadband investment, increase competition, and serve the public interest.”

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