Nearly a year after a federal court effectively dismantled longstanding Open Internet (“net neutrality”) rules and after President Obama’s recent call for a new action to protect the free flow of information online, the Federal Communications Commission is on the verge of deciding whether it will regulate broadband access -- and if so, how.

The commission, the courts and most likely the new Congress will wrestle over net neutrality for, unfortunately, years to come. But there is a simple, vital step the FCC can take now to make affordable, dependable, high-speed Internet available to millions more Americans. 

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A petition filed by local governments in Wilson, N.C. and Chattanooga, Tenn. invites the FCC to set aside state laws that prevent municipally-owned broadband networks from expanding to serve willing customers in neighboring areas. By granting the localities’ request, the commission would introduce competition -- along with pressure to lower rates and improve services – into markets now controlled by a single Internet Service Provider.

Communities like Powell, Wyo. and Kutztown, Pa. got into the broadband arena after recognizing that the private sector might never wire their small towns with the state-of-the-art fiber optics that bring the highest speeds. They see broadband as a vital tool for economic development; a publicly-owned network in Chattanooga has transformed the city into a regional technology hub.

But spurred on by online giants like Verizon and Comcast, legislatures in 20 states have erected barriers to the development of such publicly-owned broadband networks. The companies want no part of competition with municipal networks, which are chartered to operate for community benefit and deliver affordable rates and quality customer service. In North Carolina alone, the communications industry lobby gave friendly legislators over $90,000 in 2011 to effectively ban municipal competition.

The same court decision last January that set aside the FCC’s previous (admittedly anemic) net neutrality rules made clear that the Commission has the power to “promote competition in the local telecommunications market, or other regulating methods that remove barriers to infrastructure investment.” The language amounts to a green-light for commission action to boost the ability of communities to determine their own broadband futures. 

As long they are insulated from competition, the big ISPs will have a stronger hand in their fight against the Open Internet. After Obama made headlines near the end of 2014 by calling on the FCC to classify broadband service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act to ensure maximum consumer protection online, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson initially declared a halt of development of the company’s U-Verse broadband network.

Stephenson wouldn’t have dared take such a step if his company had more competitors ready to move into areas AT&T has consigned to second-class service. Clearly American consumers need a cop on the beat to restrain ISP malfeasance and let communities choose the broadband they need.

O'Boyle is program director for Common Cause's Media and Democracy Reform Initiative.