The Municipal Menace?
Jason Meyers, Senior Editor, Utility Communications/IoT
My favorite recent headline about the ongoing legislative brouhaha over municipal networks is this one, from a publication called The Escapist: "Tenn. Congresswoman Valiantly Protects ISPs from Evil Municipal Broadband."
That sarcasm is a reference to an amendment attached by US House of Representatives Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) to the fiscal 2015 Financial Services appropriations bill that would keep regulators from modifying state laws prohibiting municipalities from building and operating broadband networks. The amendment was approved 223-200 in the House last week, but a final version of the bill must still be passed by the House and Senate and signed by President Obama to become law.
The topic is a hotly debated one of late, as more municipalities and municipally owned utilities, frustrated by what they consider to be less than acceptable levels of broadband service, take matters into their own hands and build networks, usually funded by bond issues approved by taxpayer vote. Such activity in Blackburn's own home state of Tennessee is frequently cited as the model for municipal network deployment, thanks in large part to the success of EPB Fiber Optics , the unit of the municipally owned utility in Chattanooga that has operated a gigabit network there for four years and is currently seeking to expand its network into other parts of the state.
Blackburn's aim is to prevent the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from pre-empting state legislation, particularly in the 20 states that have laws regarding municipal broadband (including Tennessee). FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, along with several Democratic members of Congress, contend that municipal networks shouldn't be blocked by state laws and that the FCC has and will exert the authority to pre-empt them. (See Dems Urge FCC Action to Protect Muni Nets.)
It's a partisan debate, with legislators who share Blackburn's view largely standing behind the concept of states' rights. "Twenty states across our country have held public debates and enacted laws that limit municipal broadband to varying degrees," Blackburn said on the House floor last week. "States have spoken and said we should be careful and deliberate in how we allow public entry into our vibrant communications marketplace. Inserting the FCC into our states' economic and fiscal affairs sets a dangerous precedent and violates state sovereignty in a manner that warrants deeper examination."
For obvious reasons, incumbent service providers want to stomp out competition from municipal networks, both to protect their own market dominance and because they believe the public funding foundation of most municipal networks makes the competitive playing field uneven. Whether they are successful in that effort remains to be seen -- but with so much momentum of late from municipalities and utilities in the Gigabit Cities realm, it seems likely that telecom and cable providers will have city-backed competition to contend with for some time.
Is there a role for local governments and municipal utilities in the broadband game, or should municipal leaders stick to running their cities and stay out of the telecom fracas? Perhaps more time and more experiments like Chattanooga -- rather than more legislation and litigation -- will help identify the best solutions.
See these stories for more muni musings:
- Will Santa Fe Strategy Be a Message to Munis?
- Utility Taps Its Own Power for FTTP
- FCC: Are You Being Served?
- FCC Commits $100M to Rural Experiments
- Colorado Gigabit Network Shuns Video, Embraces OTT
- Jackson Energy Enhances FTTH Billing
- Taking a Different Path to 1 Gigabit
- Municipality Boasts Low-Cost FTTP Rollout
- Utility to Go Gigabit in Oklahoma
- UTC Telecom 2014: The Rise of the Utelco?
— Jason Meyers, Senior Editor, Utility Communications/IoT, Light Reading