FCC on the spot over local broadband

Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C., want to allow their city-owned broadband Internet services to compete with companies like Comcast and Time Warner Cable, but state laws are standing in their way.

Now, they are turning to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for help.

ADVERTISEMENT
Both states on Thursday filed petitions asking the FCC to “take immediate action” to invalidate those state laws, which could force the commission’s hand on the hotly contested issue.

According to Chattanooga’s Electric Power Board (EPB), a city-owned power utility, Tennessee state law “frustrates the congressional goal that all Americans should have access to broadband capability” by prohibiting it from providing broadband and video services outside the 600-square-mile area where it offers electricity. 

“Although residents in EPB’s electric service area enjoy access to the fastest Internet service in the nation, many of their neighbors do not,” it claimed in its filing.

In the past, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has asserted the authority to overturn state laws that limit community broadband by using a legal provision to remove barriers and promote competition in the broadband Internet market.

Earlier this year, Wheeler claimed in a blog post that it was “in the best interests of consumers and competition that the FCC exercises its power to preempt state laws that ban or restrict competition from community broadband."

“Given the opportunity, we will do so.”

Some public interest advocates have urged the FCC to act on the issue, but Wheeler’s claim has led to harsh rebuke from Republicans in Congress.

Nearly a dozen GOP senators expressed “broad concern” in a letter to Wheeler last month and the House last week approved a measure to specifically block the FCC from preempting state laws. 

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), the sponsor of the amendment, warned at the time about “unelected federal agency bureaucrats in Washington” meddling in state laws. 

Before acting on the two petitions, the FCC would have to perform a full legal analysis and allow for input from the public.  

On Thursday, Wheeler said in a statement that the FCC is looking forward “to a full opportunity for comment by all interested parties, and will carefully review the specific legal, factual, and policy issues before us.”