The Federal Communications Commission recently took two steps aimed at making sure that people can access the broad array of material that's now available online.
First, the agency passed the strongest net neutrality rules in its history. Those regulations, slated to go into effect on June 12, include prohibitions that ban broadband providers from blocking or degrading traffic. Theoretically, the rules guarantee that people who want to stream Netflix videos, upload videos to Facebook, or list their homes on Airbnb will be able to do so without interference by their Internet service providers.
The second move has not drawn as many headlines, but could prove even more significant. The same day that the FCC voted in favor of net neutrality rules, it also voted 3-2 to nix laws in Tennessee and North Carolina that restrict local cities and towns from creating their own broadband networks.
That decision could go a long way toward boosting net neutrality principles, even if the regulations themselves are thrown out in court. That's because Internet service providers that have to compete for subscribers presumably won't be all that eager to slow down Netflix or Facebook -- or take other measures that would hinder people from accessing material online.
But authorities in Tennessee and North Carolina don't view the FCC's decision as a positive. This week, North Carolina joined Tennessee in suing the FCC, arguing that the agency has no right to vacate a state law.
“Despite recognition that the State of North Carolina creates and retains control over municipal governments, the FCC unlawfully inserted itself between the state and the state’s political subdivisions,” Attorney General Roy Cooper says in papers filed with the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. He says the FCC's order is unconstitutional and exceeds its authority.
It's worth noting that North Carolina and Tennessee only passed curbs on muni-broadband after local towns built networks that offered faster, cheaper service than what was commercially available.
In 2008, Wilson, N.C. became one of the first towns in the country to build its own fiberoptic network. At the time, Wilson spent $28 million to create Greenlight, a muni network that allowed consumers to obtain basic cable, Web access at 10 Mpbs and digital phone service, for $99.95 a month. Time Warner reportedly offered something similar -- though with slower broadband speeds -- for an introductory rate of $137.95 a month.
Time Warner quickly began lobbying state lawmakers to impose crippling regulations on other cities that wanted to build their own broadband networks. In 2011, state lawmakers did so.
In Tennessee, Chattanooga's Electric Power Board decided in 2007 to move forward with a plan to build its own fiberoptic broadband network. Comcast unsuccessfully sued to prevent the buildout, alleging that the utility company was violating a state regulation by subsidizing the network with electric utility funds.
Chattanooga ultimately developed the first 1 GB broadband network in the country. Soon afterward, Tennessee lawmakers passed new restrictions that limit other cities' ability to create similar networks.
The FCC rightly recognized that curbs in those states -- and around 18 others -- protect local telecoms and cable companies at the expense of local residents. Hopefully judges on the 4th Circuit also will realize that state lawmakers shouldn't limit people's opportunities for high-speed Web service.