Municipal broadband advocates, and two municipalities in North Carolina and Tennessee, just got a boost from FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. Wheeler decided today that Wilson, North Carolina and Chattanooga, Tennessee could ignore state laws that would prohibit them from expanding local municipal broadband networks to towns in the surrounding metro area. The full commission will vote on the decision at its February 26 meeting.
This is the latest in a series of big moves from the FCC on broadband in recent weeks. After initially releasing a hybrid option on net neutrality that was almost universally hated, the FCC has been working to correct course – with some added presidential firepower. President Obama announced his support for municipal broadband networks and net neutrality ahead of the state of the union address last month, and since then Wheeler has been swift to take action.
First, in its latest Broadband Progress Report the commission dramatically expanded the definition of minimally acceptable broadband speeds and access rates. The expansion means that almost half of the US is without acceptable access. Since that announcement, Wheeler has also voiced his support for letting Wilson and Chattanooga ignore state laws that would curb their growing municipal networks. FCC observers also expect the commission to announce plans in support of reclassifying broadband under Title II a move that would be a win for net neutrality.
As CivSource has reported, some 21 states have strikingly similar ALEC supported laws on the books that make it difficult for municipalities to build their own broadband networks, even when no other option exists. Private providers like Verizon, AT&T and Comcast say these networks present unfair competition as they are subsidized by government spending. They’ve used their cash on hand to support legislative efforts from ALEC and Chambers of Commerce to effectively limit the options for many communities. If the FCC is successful in rolling back those limits in Wilson and Chattanooga, other municipalities may have new found hope for offering broadband access.
Still, the petition process is a significant hurdle for resource strapped small towns. Both Wilson and Chattanooga were able to build their networks and could rely on the existence and success of those networks in the process. Small towns that want to build may face greater difficulty making the case in a petition, assuming they can afford to make the petition in the first place.
The full vote is expected on February 26. Savvy observers should expect a full scale lobbying effort on the part of incumbent providers in the intervening period. We plan to keep you posted on updates as they become available.