States Versus Feds on Municipal Broadband

Carl Weinschenk
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Mix of IT Initiatives Offer Compelling, Immediate Savings for Federal Agencies

The fight over the right of municipalities to build their own networks seems like such a no-brainer that it takes some digging to even figure out why opposition to the idea exists.

But exist it does. Laws in many states constrain municipalities from building such networks. The debate, which pits Republicans against Democrats in Washington, DC, gradually is coming to a head.

Bloomberg reports that Chattanooga’s Electric Power Board, which doubles as a broadband service provider, has petitioned The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to allow it to build a network in areas served by AT&T and Charter despite Tennessee laws prohibiting such a build. The story says that FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has the power to override state law.


A similar petition has been filed by Wilson, N.C., for the right to expand its Greenlight municipal network, according to The Wilson Times. North Carolina also has laws against such networks.

The situations in North Carolina and Tennessee are the tip of what at one level is a classic ideological battle, according to the Bloomberg story:

There is a growing political divide in Washington over Internet services provided by local governments, at times for lower prices than companies charge, or to connect areas that weren’t being served. Democrats have said municipal broadband networks should be free of state restrictions and Republicans have opposed overriding state laws.

Municipalities position the alternative networks as ways to provide far better service than those areas currently get. Those builds create jobs and force incumbents to offer better and less expensive services, proponents say.

Earlier this month, Republicans in the House agreed to an amendment to the 2015 Financial Services spending bill put forward by Tennessee Representative Marsha Blackburn that would keep the FCC from overriding the state laws. Roll Call quotes her as casting it as a states’ rights issue:

“Twenty states across our country have held public debates and enacted laws that limit municipal broadband to varying degrees,” she said on the House floor Tuesday evening. “States have spoken and said we should be careful and deliberate in how we allow public entry into our vibrant communications marketplace.”

Vox offers a good overview of the situation and states the case against municipal networks far beyond Blackburn’s knee-jerk states’ rights point. Tim Lee notes that such projects are financially risky, and opinions differ on whether taxpayer money should be used to compete with private companies. He also points to heavy lobbying and political advertising done by established service providers to squelch this potentially dangerous form of competition.

Clearly, however, there is a very strong case for municipal networks. The proof can be seen in the middling performance of broadband providers in the United States compared to other nations.

Blackburn’s amendment has little chance of being written into law. However, the bigger issue of whether municipalities will be able to build their own networks free of state interference is far from being settled.

Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Intenet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at cweinsch@optonline.net and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.

 



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