FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is gearing up for a battle with state legislators in Tennessee and North Carolina with plans to circulate a draft decision to overturn anti-municipal broadband laws in both states, reports The Washington Post, citing a senior agency official.
Wheeler could provide a copy of a draft of his proposal to other FCC commissioners possibly today and then vote on the issue at its public meeting on Feb. 26.
"Communities across the nation know that access to robust broadband is key to their economic future – and the future of their citizens. Many communities have found that existing private-sector broadband deployment or investment fails to meet their need," said Wheeler in statement. "They should be able to make their own decisions about building the networks they need to thrive. After looking carefully at petitions by two community broadband providers asking the FCC to pre-empt provisions of state laws preventing expansion of their very successful networks, I recommend approval by the Commission so that these two forward-thinking cities can serve the many citizens clamoring for a better broadband future."
If the commission votes to approve the issue, the FCC would overturn state laws that have inhibited municipal providers like EPB in Chattanooga, Tenn., and other providers in Wilson, N.C., from either building their own networks or expanding their reach to compete with incumbent telcos and cable operators like Verizon and Comcast.
In Tennessee, lawmakers have put rules in place that limit their networks to specific geographic areas. Meanwhile, municipal providers in North Carolina can't offer services at prices below what a traditional service provider offers today.
By overturning the existing laws in Tennessee and North Carolina, the FCC could incite a larger battle about the municipal broadband movement in other states.
The FCC's move is up against strong opposition from both state and U.S. Republican legislators. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) have sponsored a bill that is designed to restrict the FCC's authority under Section 706, preventing the agency from using that portion of the law as a regulatory tool for broadband.
Outside of these two cities, efforts to limit municipal broadband in Kansas and Georgia failed after local public protest. However, Minnesota's HF 2695 explicitly bars any community from building a broadband network to serve their needs.
Today, there are about 20 state laws that limit the growth of municipal broadband services.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Wheeler's impending move gained the support of community groups like Next Century Cities, a city-to-city initiative that's focused on finding ways to encourage the growth and availability of broadband services.
"We welcome reports that Chairman Wheeler is taking the concerns of cities and their leaders seriously when it comes to local choice," said Deb Socia, executive director of Next Century Cities, in a statement. "We look forward to seeing the details, but any move to expand choices for towns and cities is good for innovation, competition, and for the country."
The FCC is not the only government entity proposing to overturn the anti-municipal broadband laws in place. A group of Democratic senators in January developed a new bill called the Community Broadband Act that is designed to overturn existing state laws that ban or restrict cities and towns from building their own broadband networks.
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