As expected, the Federal Communications Commission today voted to preempt state laws restricting community broadband in North Carolina and Tennessee. The decision came in the form of an order adopted at today’s FCC meeting, with the commission’s three Democratic commissioners supporting the decision and the two Republican commissioners voting against the order.
Chattanooga, Tennessee and Wilson, North Carolina both have municipally-owned broadband networks offering ultra-high-speed broadband service, but both states until today have had laws preventing the operators of those networks from offering service beyond their home communities. FCC officials at today’s meeting said the commission was striking down those restrictions because the 1996 Telecommunications Act says the commission should eliminate barriers to competition.
On hand for today’s FCC meeting were residents of communities near Chattanooga and Wilson where high-speed broadband is not available – and in his remarks about the order, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler described the problems that a lack of broadband has created for those people. He noted, for example, that a Tennessee woman sometimes drives her son 12 miles to her church so he can watch the biology videos he needs for his class work.
“This decision is pro-broadband,” said Wheeler. “This decision is pro-competition. And this decision is for the right of Americans, through their elected local officials, to make their own decisions about their broadband future.”
Anti-Municipal Broadband Legislation
When FCC officials told reporters several weeks ago that the commission planned to preempt Tennessee and North Carolina laws, they emphasized that the commission would not strike down all state laws restricting municipal broadband deployment but instead would look at laws on a state by state basis. And in his remarks, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai noted that today’s order was focused primarily on attacking geographic restrictions in Tennessee and North Carolina. The net result, he predicted, is that states now will vote to ban municipal networks completely rather than allow them in some areas only.
Pai also argued that the FCC overstepped its authority in preempting state laws.
FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said municipal networks have a history of “overpromising and underdelivering.”
Both Pai and O’Rielly said efforts to spur competition by striking down laws restricting municipal networks might be for naught because of a separate Open Internet order that also was adopted today against their wishes. That order, they said, would discourage investment in broadband by reclassifying broadband as a Title II telecommunications service, thereby opening it up to stricter regulation.