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FCC Chair Might Seek to End Limits on Municipal Networks

18 Jun, 2014 By: Doug McPherson

WASHINGTON – Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler suggested last week he might seek to abolish laws lobbied for by Internet service providers that block municipalities from building and using their own fiber-based broadband networks.

Wheeler wrote in a blog last week: “I believe that it is in the best interests of consumers and competition that the FCC exercises its power to preempt state laws that ban or restrict competition from community broadband. Given the opportunity, we will do so.”

Insiders say when cities build their own fiber-to-the-home networks, residents often can get better broadband service compared to what incumbents offer. 

To make his point, Wheeler used Chattanooga, Tenn., as an example. Chattanooga’s utility-provided EPB Fiber, which delivers 1 Gbps connections for $70 a month.

“It’s the poster child for the benefits of community broadband networks, and also a prime example of the efforts to restrict them,” Wheeler said. “Chattanooga’s investment in community broadband has not only helped ensure that all its citizens have Internet access, it’s made this mid-size city in the Tennessee Valley a hub for the high-tech jobs people usually associate with Silicon Valley.”

He added that Chattanooga’s gigabit-speed networks remove bandwidth as a constraint on innovation.

“Amazon has cited Chattanooga’s world-leading networks as a reason for locating a distribution center in the area, as has Volkswagen when it chose Chattanooga as its headquarters for North American manufacturing.”

ISPs are responding to the prospect of muni broadband by lobbying state lawmakers to restrict municipal networks with some success. In North Carolina, the incumbent providers convinced lawmakers to restrict new municipal networks. Tennessee also has a law on the books that prevents Chattanooga’s network from expanding.

More than 20 states have laws that limit local towns’ ability to build their own fiber-to-the-home networks.

Community broadband supporters hailed Wheeler’s comments, including Heather Burnett Gold, president of the Fiber to the Home Council (Americas), who said, “Communities need and want world-leading broadband – that is clear. And they should be empowered to be in control of their bandwidth destinies. While the private sector has undertaken the vast majority of all-fiber, ultra-high-speed bandwidth deployments, where they don’t step up, communities need to be able to get this essential infrastructure.”

But Wheeler’s efforts are facing stiff opposition from Republican senators, 11 of whom sent a letter telling him not to “usurp” state power. Led by Deb Fischer of Nebraska and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, the senators said that it is “deeply troubling” that the FCC may “force taxpayer funded competition against broadband providers – against the wishes of states.”

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