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Wheeler Gets Earful on Muni-Broadband Power

27 Aug, 2014 By: Doug McPherson

WASHINGTON – Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler is getting an earful from both sides of the political aisle on municipal broadband power. Wheeler has said he wants to nix laws that prevent cities from building their own broadband networks.

But he might not have the power to do it according to Matthew Berry, chief of staff to Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai. During a speech delivered last week at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), Berry said Wheeler doesn’t have the legal authority to preempt state laws regulating municipal broadband.

“Some at the Commission have been speaking loudly even though the agency has a small stick,” Berry said. “Indeed, it probably has no stick at all. It is time for the Commission to recognize this reality and move on to more productive endeavors.”

Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers are pressing Wheeler to make good on his promise to vacate state laws that restrict muni-broadband. “What the broadband market needs today are more options and greater local choice, not barriers that prevent cities and towns from participating fully in the global economy,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) said in a statement last week. “I encourage the commission to use its authority to ensure municipalities have the power to make decisions about their broadband infrastructure.”

Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA) expressed a similar sentiment. “I strongly encourage Wheeler and the FCC to take quick and decisive action to lift restrictions that limit or prevent communities from addressing their own broadband needs,” Doyle stated.

Many consumer advocates say the FCC should encourage municipal broadband, arguing that it offers much-needed alternatives to cable companies and telecoms. They point out that cities that have built their own networks can offer cheaper and faster service than the incumbents. A common example among advocates is Chattanooga, Tenn. It began rolling out a 1 Gbps network in 2010. That state – like 19 others – now limits cities’ ability to build their own networks.

Still, some argue against FCC action, including the NCSL, which wrote a letter to Wheeler last month that said, in part:

“We encourage you to heed the principles of federalism and caution you of the numerous decisions by the United States Supreme Court with regard to the relationship between the state and its political subdivisions.”

The organization went on to threaten to sue the FCC for enacting rules that would “diminish the duly adopted laws of the impacted states.”

For his part, Wheeler recently reiterated his criticism of anti-broadband laws. “Many states have enacted laws that place a range of restrictions on communities’ ability to invest in their own future,” he wrote to lawmakers last week. “There is reason to believe that these laws have the effect of limiting competition in those areas, contrary to almost two decades of bipartisan federal communications policy that is focused on encouraging competition.”

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