State laws restricting city-run broadband overruled

Today is one of the more momentous days in the FCC's recent history. Its net neutrality vote will get most of the press attention, but its moves to protect municipal broadband from state legislators are also quite important. The proposal adopted today is narrowly focused, but it could have huge implications. What the regulator has decided to do is preempt state laws that seek to restrict the spread of city-built broadband networks in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Wilson, North Carolina. But the agency also reserved the right to intercede on behalf of municipalities on a case-by-case basis if it thought that local or state governments were getting in the way of improving competition and spreading access to broadband internet.

The Electric Power Board (EPB) in Chattanooga built a gigabit fiber network for residents, and other areas surrounding the city want to be able to tap into the service. These rural and suburban neighborhoods usually only have one (terrible) choice for broadband, or none at all. The problem is that the state government of Tennessee requires that the EPB only operate within the city limits. The situation is similar in Wilson, where the county also rolled out a high-speed network to offer citizens a choice in internet service provider, where previously there was none.

Today's decision means that Tennessee and North Carolina cannot prevent cities or counties from building their own networks. But more importantly, it also removes barriers from expanding those networks to neighbors. Dissenters on the commission predictably invoked state rights. And some, like Commissioner Michael O'Rielly from New York objected to the very idea of any government entity offering broadband. He opened his own dissent by saying the proposal "highlights the unprecedented lengths the commission is willing to go in undermining the free market system, federal statutes, the US constitution and common sense in order to try and dictate where, when and how broadband is provided."

Chairman Tom Wheeler, in his own remarks, said, "Some states have created thickets of red tape designed to limit competition." He reiterated the commission's mission to promote the spread of broadband and competition and said that the FCC was voting to cut away much of that red tape.

Today's vote broke along party lines, suggesting this fight is far from over. Today's ruling applies directly to only Tennessee and North Carolina. And with Republicans taking control in the House and Senate, it's entirely possible that we could see federal restrictions imposed on the FCC's ability to intervene in future dust-ups between states and municipalities over broadband. And, since 17 other states have similar restrictions enshrined in law, it's only a matter of time before this issue lands before the commission again.