FCC Chair Now Has Two Chances To Overturn Bans On Municipal Broadband

The city of Chattanooga wants to be able to offer its city-owned broadband service to surrounding towns, but Tennessee law prohibits it. (photo: ash)

The city of Chattanooga wants to be able to offer its city-owned broadband service to surrounding towns, but Tennessee law prohibits it. (photo: ash)

Thanks to deep-pocketed telecom lobbyists, 20 states in the U.S. have laws that either ban or heavily restrict local governments from creating or investing in public broadband networks, and more states are trying to jump on that ban-wagon. For months, FCC Chair Tom Wheeler has been saying that his agency could use its authority to preempt these anticonsumer laws and give municipalities the ability to invest in Internet infrastructure if they want. Now it’s time for Wheeler to put up or shut up, as the FCC ponders petitions from groups in two states.

First up is Tennessee, where state law says that a city-owned electric utility may provide telecom services, but that it must go through a bureaucratic maze of disclosures, hearings, voting, and other requirements that a private telecom provider would not have to endure. Additionally, telecom services — including broadband and pay-TV — may only be offered to those within that utility’s electric service area.

Ars Technica reports that EPB — a utility company owned by the city of Chattanooga, TN, that also offers broadband, TV, and phone service — has filed a petition [PDF] with the FCC asking it to invalidate these state laws, so that it may expand these non-electrical services to communities that have requested it.

“EPB is… surrounded by a digital desert in which businesses and residents are unable to access broadband Internet service or must make do with very limited speeds,” reads the petition, which claims that “advanced telecommunications capabilities, including high-speed broadband services, are not being deployed on a reasonable and timely basis in communities near EPB’s electric service area because of the territorial restriction” of the state law.

The petition states that there have been numerous legislative attempts in Tennessee over the last 15 years to “modify territorial or other limitations applicable to municipal electric systems that provide Internet and video services,” but that “None of the bills has been enacted.”

The second petition filed this week comes from North Carolina, where a 2011 Time Warner Cable-backed bill put new restrictions on cities wanting to offer broadband service.

Luckily for the people of Wilson, NC, their municipal fiber network was partially grandfathered in, meaning residents still have access to it. However, much like in Chattanooga, state law now prevents the service, dubbed Greenlight, from being offered outside of its home county, even though Wilson’s city-operated power utility provides service to a total of six counties.

And similar to the EPB petition, Wilson says that the city “has received numerous requests for its broadband services from residents, government agencies, businesses, and other organizations outside of its home county.”

“I have seen Wilson evolve from ‘the World’s Greatest Tobacco Market’ to ‘NC’s First Gigabit City,'” says Wilson Mayor, C. Bruce Rose, in a statement. “Years ago, our City Council saw fiber optics as the public infrastructure of the future and absolutely essential to improve the economy, provide jobs and improve our quality of life.”

Wilson’s petition asks the FCC do review the relevant state laws regarding municipal broadband and deem them unenforceable.

If you’re hoping that Wheeler and the FCC are looking at these petitions as a reason to propose a general rule that would preempt or invalidate the state laws limiting muni broadband, think again.

A rep for the Commission tells Ars Technica that there is no timeline for the FCC’s review of these petitions and that all petitions are handled on a case-by-case basis.

“We look forward to a full opportunity for comment by all interested parties, and will carefully review the specific legal, factual, and policy issues before us,” says the rep. “The FCC has the authority to take broader action through rulemakings — but that is not what is happening here.”