FCC to weigh rolling back state broadband regs

The Federal Communications Commission will vote in February on whether to preempt two state laws restricting cities from building municipally owned high-speed Internet networks, an FCC aide confirmed.

President Obama is in Iowa on Wednesday to announce new initiatives to expand broadband access. As part of the package, he will call on the FCC to preempt states across the country that set up roadblocks to communities expanding city-owned networks. Nineteen states place such restrictions on municipalities building out their broadband networks.

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Obama’s push, which he will include in his State of the Union, is part of a broader package meant to expand broadband service throughout the country, by increasing competition. 

Supporters say city-owned broadband networks bring Internet services to communities lacking private investment. But critics say the locally owned networks have an unfair advantage.

Two petitions are pending before the commission to roll back state restrictions in Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C., to allow those cities to expand their networks. In the past, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has vowed to take action against the laws, saying it is in the best interest of competition and the public.

The cities filed their petitions in July. Chattanooga, for example, noted that state restrictions forbid it from expanding its high-speed Internet outside the borders of its electrical power service.

"The FCC has been working diligently to expand broadband deployment and increase consumer choice and competition nationwide, including reviewing complaints from cities that have been prohibited from providing competitive high-speed alternatives," Wheeler said in a statement ahead of Obama's speech. 

Critics of the proposal, including Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, said the commission does not have the constitutional authority to preempt state restrictions. 

Instead, the commission should focus on private sector deployment, Pai said. 

— Updated 5:50 p.m.