FCC's Wheeler challenges Tennessee's anti-municipal broadband laws

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FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is now taking on a Tennessee law that prohibits the state's cities and towns from building their own fiber-based networks, particularly in areas where a telco or cable MSO already provides service.

Chattanooga, Tenn.-based municipal provider EPB has built a municipal broadband network that can deliver 1 Gbps-based fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) services, but a state law prohibits it from expanding outside of its existing service area.

EPB's FTTP network has helped lure at least four businesses--Claris Networks, Co.Lab, EDOps, and Lamp Post Group--to the city. Chattanooga is also emerging as an incubator for tech start-ups.

Facing strong lobbying from AT&T (NYSE: T) and Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA), state lawmakers decided to mothball the "Broadband Infrastructure for Regional Economic Development Act of 2011." If the bill had passed, it would have enabled municipal-run broadband providers, such as EPB, to extend service up to 30 miles outside their service areas.

Wheeler said in a blog post on Tuesday that EPB's FTTH network is driving new competition and spurring economic growth. He said that local municipalities "shouldn't be stopped by state laws promoted by cable and telephone companies that don't want that competition."

Not surprisingly, Wheeler's efforts are facing opposition from Republican senators, 11 of whom sent a letter telling him not to "usurp" state power. Led by Deb Fischer of Nebraska and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, the senators said that it is "deeply troubling" that the FCC may "force taxpayer funded competition against broadband providers—against the wishes of states."

In May, Wheeler made a call to challenge more than 20 state laws that prevent or discourage municipalities from building their own broadband networks.

However compelling Wheeler's ambitions are, it is still unclear how he is going to thwart a number of well-established laws that states such as Tennessee have passed in recent years.

For more:
- The National Journal has this article

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