FCC chief prepares to overrule state Web laws

The head of the Federal Communications Commissionis urging his fellow commissioners to block state laws that would prevent cities and towns from building out their own government-run Internet services.

Chairman Tom Wheeler this week will circulate a draft decision to nullify laws in Tennessee and North Carolina, after receiving a request from towns in each of those states.

Cities across the country “should be able to make their own decisions about building the networks they need to thrive,” Wheeler said in a statement on Monday. 

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“After looking carefully at petitions by two community broadband providers asking the FCC to preempt provisions of state laws preventing expansion of their very successful networks, I recommend approval by the commission so that these two forward-thinking cities can serve the many citizens clamoring for a better broadband future.”

The move to preempt state laws limiting municipal broadband was long expected, and comes amid a broader effort by Wheeler to exert federal authority over people’s access to the Internet.

In addition to the moves on laws limiting municipal broadband services, the FCC is also expected to vote this month on new net neutrality rules that treat Internet service like a utility. Both actions are scheduled to come up for a vote before the five-member FCC on Feb. 26.

Advocates on the left, including President Obama, had strongly urged the FCC to step in and preempt the state laws, which they say limit competition.

“In too many places across America, some big companies are doing everything they can to keep out competitors,” Obama said during a speech in Cedar Falls, Iowa, last month.  “Today in 19 states, we’ve got laws on the books that stamp out competition,” he added.

Wheeler had previously maintained that the FCC has the authority to block laws limiting community broadband networks under a legal provision that allows it to reduce people’s burdens to high-speed broadband Internet.

The chairman is likely to get both fellow Democrats to sign on with the proposal. The two Republicans on the FCC seem inclined to oppose the move, setting up a contentious 3-2 vote.

Republicans in both the FCC and on Capitol Hill had fiercely opposed Wheeler’s maneuver, calling it an overreach by the federal government.

The two cities that petitioned the FCC to act are Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C.

Senior FCC officials said that the agency’s decision to preempt laws in those two states would not amount to a blanket nullification of state restrictions on community broadband, but instead was a determination based on those two cases alone. Laws in Tennessee and North Carolina clearly limit broadband deployment, one official said, and appear designed to protect existing Internet service providers.

Still, other cities and towns are likely to turn to the FCC to nullify their own state laws limiting broadband access. Agency officials indicated that those requests would stand a high chance of being granted.