Telecoms and FCC Spar Over Who Regulates Municipal Broadband

Carl Weinschenk
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The relationship among players in the telecommunications industry and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that oversees it has been a lot more interesting since Tom Wheeler became chairman.

The net neutrality issue is certainly one big area of debate. In that area, the FCC seems to hold a corporate-friendly position as represented by the carriers who want to be able to further monetize their broadband pipes. In another area, however, the FCC appears to be rubbing the commercial interests the wrong way.

At the Cable Show in Los Angeles, which straddled the end of April and beginning of May, Wheeler suggested that the legal standing of municipal broadband networks should be handled at the federal level. Wheeler, according to a transcript of his presentation quoted at Lightwave Online, said that his goal is to have the feds predominate:


I have said before that I believe the FCC has the power—and I intend to exercise that power—to preempt state laws that ban competition from community broadband.

That statement taps into a couple of hot button issues. In a long story earlier this year at Ars Technica, Jon Brodkin discussed the reality that 20 states, which translates to nearly 40 percent of our union, have restrictions of some sort on community broadband. More may be added to the list, Brodkin said. 

Proponents of municipal projects claim that incumbent carriers are driving the rules. Their view is that the carriers are simply seeking to use the regulatory process to squelch competition and will bypass areas that are too sparsely populated or for some other reason don’t make financial sense to serve.

The case for municipal broadband was made on a panel at a New America Foundation event. The bottom line is that those who want to empower municipal broadband see it as a way to force a change from the antiquated technology and other shortcomings they say are the product of carrier dominance. Competition from municipalities can change the dynamic both by establishing new networks and pushing the incumbents to up their games.

These issues often are fought along party lines. Last week, Senate republicans wrote to Wheeler expressing concern about his comments and subsequent reprise in written testimony submitted to a House subcommittee. The letter, according to Multichannel News, warned against “taxpayer-funded competition against private broadband providers” and said that states are better positioned to regulate broadband.

This is not an isolated battle. From the legislative and regulatory points of view, it is rooted in different philosophies of government. It is exacerbated by the sharp partisan divides that exist today. On the telecommunications side, it is also a long debate that focuses on carrier efforts to protect every acre of their territories regardless of whether they truly want to build networks to serve them.



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