Governors warn FCC: Back off state laws

A coalition of governors is warning the Federal Communications Commission not to interfere with state laws preventing cities from building out their own Internet services.

The National Governors Association told the FCC in comments filed on Friday that it should “honor the longstanding partnership” between the federal government and states “and avoid triggering unintended consequences” by blocking laws in North Carolina and Tennessee. 

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The FCC has been under pressure to block laws in the two states, which prevent the cities of Wilson and Chattanooga from expanding their city-owned broadband Internet services to compete with private companies like Comcast or Time Warner Cable. Both cities filed petitions last month asking the FCC to “take immediate action” and invalidate the state laws, which FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has said his agency has the power to do if the laws hamper competition.

The FCC has pledged to review comments from the public before deciding whether to overturn the state laws.

The governors group on Friday claimed that stepping in would violate the 1996 Telecommunications Act as well as President Obama’s 2009 executive order telling agencies not to preempt state laws unless there is a firm legal footing.

“The public elects representatives to govern them,” the governors' group wrote in their warning to the FCC.

“There is a legal distinction between laws that are unconstitutional from those that some factions do not support,” they added. “The tool to address the latter is the ballot box."

The organization's position on Friday was echoed in comments from a trade group representing Internet service companies as well as free-market groups like Americans for Prosperity and the Free State Foundation.

Left-leaning and public interest groups like Public Knowledge, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and Common Cause disagreed.

In a shared comment letter, the groups said that state laws restricting government-owned networks have “delayed and inhibited the deployment of fiber optic networks."