Commentary

Silicon Valley Sides With FCC, Says Muni-Broadband Networks Can Close 'Digital Divide'

The Federal Communications Commission took "a step toward broadband abundance" this year when it voted to nix laws that effectively prevent local cities and towns from creating their own muni-broadband networks.

That's according to the Internet Association, a trade group representing some of Silicon Valley's biggest companies, including Google, Facebook, Netflix and eBay. Today, the organization filed a friend-of-the-court brief asking the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals to let the FCC's order stand.

"The inadequate state of broadband competition has had a measurable impact on both an economic and societal level in the United States, and has created a gaping digital divide. Essentially, it has wrought a nation of two Internet access speeds: the fast lane -- where many Americans living in dense populations areas enjoy fast access to the Internet -- and the slow lane or even no lane -- where Americans lack similar abilities to access the undisputable benefits that broadband provides," the Internet Association says.

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The group says the FCC's decision to lift restrictions on muni-broadband is "one component" of the effort to close that digital divide.

In February, the FCC voted 3-2 to invalidate limits on muni-broadband in North Carolina and Tennessee. The agency's order was specific to those two states, but observers say the FCC may issue similar orders that would apply to around 20 other states that curb muni-broadband.

North Carolina and Tennessee are now asking the 6th Circuit to rule that the FCC lacked authority for its move.

In North Carolina, lawmakers imposed the now-vacated curbs on muni-broadband in 2011 -- several years after the city of Wilson spent $28 million to create Greenlight, a muni network that allowed consumers to obtain basic cable, Web access at 10 Mbps and digital phone service, for around $100 a month. Time Warner reportedly offered a similar bundle -- although with slower broadband speeds -- for an introductory rate of almost $140 a month. (Greenlight now offers service as fast as 1 Gbps.)

In Tennessee, Chattanooga's Electric Power Board decided in 2007 to move forward with a plan to build its own fiber-optic broadband network. The city ultimately developed the first 1 Gbps broadband network in the country. Soon afterward, Tennessee lawmakers limited other cities' ability to create similar networks.

The Internet Association isn't the only one backing the FCC's decision. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) also is among the agency's supporters. He filed a friend-of-the-court brief asking the appellate court to reject arguments by North Carolina and Tennessee.

"There are some instances where the federal interest in building a ubiquitous, state-of-the-art interstate telecommunications network overrides state-imposed policy preferences," Markey argues. "In those cases, the FCC has the authority to preempt state efforts to subvert that federal interest."

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