FCC’s All-Too-Welcome Move on Municipal Broadband

Photo Credit: NetMapper.Licensed CC-BY-NC.
Photo Credit: NetMapper.
Licensed CC-BY-NC.

by Julia Graber

This season, public interest policy is IN.

On Wednesday, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said that his Net Neutrality rules will stand on Title II to create what he called the strongest protections possible. The FCC is also planning to preempt state bans on municipal broadband networks. Both developments are hard-won victories that came from years of grassroots struggle.

While the move toward Title II has gotten the spotlight, the things that are happening around municipal broadband are momentous too. The FCC’s action means that more communities that want to build their own options for Internet access could finally be able to do so without lobbyist-written laws holding them back.

Last year, Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C. — two cities that built lightning-fast networks — petitioned the FCC to lift restrictive state laws that were preventing them from expanding service to neighboring communities. In response to this petition, AT&T submitted a comment to the FCC arguing that municipal networks create a “non-level playing field.” Almost in the same breath, it defended the kinds of subsidies it gets to fund its own broadband deployment.

This anti-competitive lobbying didn’t sway the FCC — but it has produced results at the state level. Companies like AT&T, with the help of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), have pushed through legislation blocking municipal broadband. About 20 states currently restrict public funding for broadband networks. Yet communities have continued pressing for the right to build, because the success stories are simply too powerful to ignore.

Last month, President Obama gave a speech in Cedar Falls, Iowa, a city that built its own broadband network and gets speeds almost 100 times the national average. He urged the FCC to preempt these kinds of state laws restricting municipal broadband.

Soon after, Sens. Cory Booker, Ed Markey and Claire McCaskill introduced the Community Broadband Act, which would prevent state and local governments from passing laws banning municipal broadband. Sens. Angus King and Ron Wyden also backed the bill. Two cities in Sen. King’s home state of Maine, which doesn’t restrict local networks, have successfully deployed ultra-fast broadband.

Now the FCC appears ready to join the rising tide of support for municipal broadband by voting in favor of overriding the bans in North Carolina and Tennessee at its meeting on Feb. 26.

All of these moves are headed in the right direction: toward policies that promote competition and place people ahead of corporations. People deserve the right to choose among different Internet service providers. If communities can build better and faster networks than monopolistic companies can, they should be allowed to compete.

Reprinted from Free Press.

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