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FCC Clears Way for Muni Network Expansion

Jason Meyers
2/26/2015
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While it was not the most significant -- and certainly not the most controversial -- part of today's actions, the FCC's decision to pre-empt state laws regarding municipal networks in North Carolina and Tennessee is likely to unleash a flood of petitions by municipalities in other states looking to address local demand for broadband.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) 's 3-2 approval of state pre-emption was prompted by separate petitions filed by municipally owned utilities in the cities of Wilson, N.C., and Chattanooga, Tenn. -- both cities that have established high-speed, gigabit Internet services, but have been barred from expanding to neighboring, underserved communities outside their footprints due to existing state laws. (See Muni Utilities Take Gigabit Fight to FCC and The Municipal Menace?)

The FCC bases its authority to pre-empt state law on Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act: "There is a clear conflict, the Order finds, between Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which directs the FCC to take action to remove barriers to broadband investment and competition, and provisions of the Tennessee and North Carolina law that erect barriers to expansion of service into surrounding communities, including unserved and underserved areas," the Commission said in its order.

Telecom service providers, which generally oppose municipal broadband intrusion, were largely too consumed with the implications of the FCC's net neutrality ruling today to voice their opinions about the municipal network order. (See FCC Adopts Title II Rules .)

But the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) , which represents technology developers that sell not only to commercial service providers but also municipalities, toed the line by applauding the municipal networks ruling.

“Municipalities should be able to assure local access to high-speed connectivity, especially in locations where private sector alternatives are not available," said TIA CEO Scott Belcher in a statement. "High-speed Internet offers tremendous social and economic benefits, and today's action will help municipalities pursue needed broadband solutions and shrink the digital divide.”


For the latest on urban network innovation, visit Light Reading's dedicated Gigabit Cities content channel. And be sure to register to attend Light Reading's Gigabit Cities Live event on May 13-14 in Atlanta.


Organizations backing the interests of municipal broadband predictably applauded the decision. Deb Socia, executive director of Next Century Cities -- which recently coordinated a letter to the FCC from mayors and elected officials of 38 communities urging the FCC to "respect the principles of local choice and self-determination" -- said she expects more cities to file petitions challenging their states' laws.

"I think there's a realization that we have a lot of Americans without adequate service, and that's impacting economic development, education and public safety," Socia tells Light Reading. She was quick to point out, however, that cities wouldn't need to address the broadband needs of their residents if the telecom industry would do so more thoroughly.

"For the vast majority of our cities, this is not something they want to be doing," Socia says. "If the market took care of this problem, we wouldn't be having this conversation."

— Jason Meyers, Senior Editor, Gigabit Cities/IoT, Light Reading

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Mitch Wagner
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Mitch Wagner,
User Rank: Lightning
2/26/2015 | 5:58:09 PM
Re: A long time in coming
Agreed, Carol. 

As I commented on another article today, I have misgivings about today's Title II vote. 

But it's hard to make a case for blocking municipalities from putting in municipal broadband. States instituting these laws -- and fighting to protect them -- are motivated by base pandering to powerful economic interests. 
Duh!
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Duh!,
User Rank: Blogger
2/26/2015 | 5:46:16 PM
Re: A long time in coming
More concrete impact, but localized.  The Order responds to existing muni broadband operations that want to expand.   The FCC thinks it has authority to go after state laws which are "unreasonable" barriers to municipal providers who can otherwise operate under state law.  They don't have authority to preempt flat-out bans on municipal broadband provision. 

In other words, any muni broadband provider business plans that are inhibited by minor speed bumps - of the kind that apparently only exist to protect incumbent - will be turned loose.  I suspect that is a pretty small population.

Congrats to Jim Baller, who wrote the Wilson and Chattanooga petitions, for the win.
cnwedit
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cnwedit,
User Rank: Light Beer
2/26/2015 | 5:13:59 PM
A long time in coming
This may not seem to have the impact and the controversy of Net Neutrality but it could actually have a more direct impact on who gets better broadband service than the other decision the FCC made today.
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