Dems back FCC chief in local Internet push

A group of Democratic lawmakers is backing Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler as he pushes for local Internet networks, despite state laws that may stand in the way.

“Communities are often best suited to decide for themselves if they want to invest in their own infrastructure and to choose the approach that will work best for them,” the lawmakers said in a letter Friday.

Signatories include Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) and Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), ranking members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Commerce subcommittee on Communications, respectively.

Rather than being inhibited by state laws, “local communities should have the opportunity to decide for themselves how to invest in their own infrastructure,” including working with incumbent Internet providers, creating public-private partnerships and creating their own networks.

Wheeler announced earlier this year that he would be turning to these municipal projects as part of his work to rewrite the agency’s net neutrality rules, which kept Internet providers from slowing or blocking access to certain websites before a federal court struck them down in January.

In a blog post earlier this month, Wheeler touted the ability of community broadband projects to challenge incumbent Internet providers, resulting in better Internet access and lower prices.

“Removing restrictions on community broadband can expand high-speed Internet access in underserved areas, spurring economic growth and improvements in government services, while enhancing competition,” he wrote, pledging to preempt state laws that ban community broadband projects.

“If the people, acting through their elected local governments, want to pursue competitive community broadband, they shouldn’t be stopped by state laws promoted by cable and telephone companies that don’t want that competition,” he said.

The move drew criticism from House Republicans, who questioned Wheeler’s pledge to overturn state laws.

In a letter, 60 lawmakers pushed Wheeler to defer to state governments, which “understand and are more attentive to the needs of the American people than unelected federal bureaucrats in Washington.”

Friday’s letter from Democrats in the House and Senate backs Wheeler’s plans.

“We urge you and your colleagues to utilize the full arsenal of tools Congress has enacted to promote competitive broadband service,” they wrote, asking Wheeler to provide more information about his plans in 30 days.

“Our nation cannot afford to fall behind or to close off viable options for its communities, especially those in underserved rural areas, to connect and prosper,” the letter said.