Feds block Web laws in two states

Regulators are taking action to preempt two state laws limiting government-owned Internet networks in a major show of federal force.

The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) 3-2 party-line vote on Thursday represented a boost for competition, supporters said, amid opposition from Republicans warning of an overgrowth of state power.

By overriding state laws in Tennessee and North Carolina, backers claimed the federal government is helping to grow the community-owned services as an alternative to major cable titans.

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The FCC was drawing “a line in the sand” to declare that it was will do whatever is necessary to prevent people from being “stuck in digital darkness,” said Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn.

“The bottom line of these matters is that some states have created thickets of red tape designed to limit competition,” echoed FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. “This decision is for the right of Americans, through their elected local officials, to make their own decision about their broadband future.”

The FCC action comes in response to requests from the towns of Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C., where city-run Web services are butting up against state law.

The cities had asked the agency to intervene on the issue last summer, claiming that state laws prevented the federal goal of connecting as many Americans as possible to high-speed broadband Internet service. A handful of residents of those states backing federal action attended the vote and were called out by Wheeler on Thursday. 

To act, the agency is relying on legal authority that allows it to remove barriers to investment to broadband infrastructure.

Opponents have warned the FCC not to intervene, saying it would be an inappropriate — and likely illegal — intrusion by federal regulators into state laws.

The vote was “appalling,” bemoaned Michael O’Rielly, a Republican commissioner on the panel.

Ajit Pai, the other Republican commissioner, said that the agency was allowing “three unelected officials in Washington, D.C.,” to “rewrite Tennessee law on a party-line vote,” overruling the will of the voters and residents.

The move is certain to fail in court, he added, because prior case history shows “that the FCC simply does not have the power to do this.” He compared it to a hypothetical federal move trying to force local police departments to operate across their state.

The FCC’s vote nullifies just the state laws in North Carolina and Tennessee.

However, 17 other states have laws on the books limiting municipal broadband networks. Cities in those states would have to appeal to the FCC to have their state laws blocked, but the Thursday vote will likely send a clear signal that those requests would be easily granted.

Wheeler said that he hoped the action would “shine some light on the fact that there is an ongoing effort to impose restrictions on what elected local officials can do at the request of their people and that calls out the activities of incumbents to block consumer choice and competition through legislation.”

During the same meeting, a more high-profile consideration was taking place, of net neutrality rules to limit how Internet service providers can interfere with people’s access to the Internet. Wheeler has tried to link the issues as two parts of a much broader plan to make sure that people have the access they need to get online in the 21st century.

The issue of government-run broadband was heralded by President Obama, who earlier this year traveled to Cedar Falls, Iowa, to cheer on their local broadband network. 

Democrats on Capitol Hill have also joined in the push, and recently introduced legislation to bar states from erecting legal or regulatory limits on city-run Web services. Republicans have largely balked, however, so the path forward remains uncertain.