FCC intends 'clear message' by overriding state broadband laws

The Federal Communications Commission will be sending a "clear message" when it votes to override two state laws restricting the expansion of city-run Internet networks, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said Monday. 

The vote later this month will only have bearing on laws in North Carolina and Tennessee, but Wheeler said it would provide a precedent for action against similar restrictions around the country.   

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"It sends a clear message and provides precedent for how the Commission would view similar restrictions," he said in prepared remarks during a speech in Colorado. "The message is that community broadband is an important option for expanding broadband deployment, and states should not be ‘erecting barriers to infrastructure investment.’”

Wheeler made sure to add that the direct effect of the vote would be limited to the two communities in those two states. And its bearing would be limited to the specifics of the two cases. But other communities are likely to challenge state restrictions before the FCC in the future. 

The FCC announced last year it would take up the two petitions, following President Obama's call for the commission to use its authority to thwart those kinds of laws across the country. There are nearly 20 states that have some type of restriction on the expansion of government-run broadband networks. 

The commission is expected to preempt the laws by a 3-2 vote on Feb. 26. Both Republican commissioners have disagreed that the commission has the authority to make the change. 

During his speech, Wheeler said the commission has power to take the action to encourage broadband expansion.

Wheeler has previously described the vote as part of a three-step process to protect the future of broadband. The first came last month when the commission voted to change the definition of high-speed broadband. The other is the chairman's net neutrality proposal, which would reclassify broadband under Title II of the Communications Act to enforce stronger rules. 

A vote on that proposal will also take place at the commission's Feb. 26 meeting. 

During the speech, Wheeler credited the openness of the Internet for the proliferation of news sites like Vox and The Huffington Post.

The new regulations are necessary, he said, to keep Internet service providers from restricting "access through special commercial terms."

"Ask Ted Turner how hard he worked to get CNN on cable systems," he said. "I was there, I saw it first-hand. Compare that to HuffingtonPost, Vox and other news and information outlets that, thanks to the Internet, didn’t have to ask permission."