Senators Introduce Bill To Block States From Blocking Public Broadband

Congress is just all up in the FCC’s business lately, it seems. Earlier this week, lawmakers in both houses proposed their own version of net neutrality, one that would also strip the FCC of its own authority to regulate broadband in the future. Today, there’s a bill looking to jump into one of the FCC’s other big issues right now: state laws that prohibit communities from developing municipal broadband.

Senators Cory Booker (NJ), Ed Markey (MA), and Claire McCaskill (MO) today introduced the Community Broadband Act, which would make it illegal for states to forbid municipalities from building out their own networks if they want to.

The core text of the bill reads: “No statute, regulation or other legal requirement of a State or local government may prohibit, or have the effect of prohibiting or substantially inhibiting, any public provider from providing telecommunications service or advanced telecommunications capability or services to any person or any public or private entity.”

The bill also seems to anticipate rebuttals about uses of taxpayer money, and specifically limits the availability of federal funds. If any public broadband project “fails due to bankruptcy or is terminated by a public provider,” it says, “no Federal funds may be provided to the public provider specifically to assist the public provider in reviving or renewing that project.”

In other words, the Community Broadband Act makes it legal for a town to start a network and illegal for the state to stop them, but doesn’t provide any assistance for towns who want to build networks. It simply gives them the opportunity to pursue their own funding. To that end, the bill specifically encourages public-private partnerships.

The bill also specifically does not exempt any public carrier from existing and future federal laws and regulations pertaining to networks, nor does it in any way seek to define the FCC’s scope and authority over broadband networks.

This comes as the FCC is currently considering its own attempt to step in and give municipal broadband networks a chance. Nineteen states currently have industry-backed laws strongly limiting public networks on the books already. But communities in two of those states, North Carolina and Tennessee, filed petitions with the FCC last summer asking for the commission to pre-empt those laws so they can go on building out their networks for their residents.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has indicated in the past that he would be in favor of preempting those laws. The White House jumped into the fray in recent days, with President Obama releasing a statement — and reiterating in his State of the Union address — saying that the FCC should absolutely act to make community broadband available to more Americans.

The sponsors of the bill appear to view their proposal as supplemental to, rather than a replacement of, the FCC’s rulemaking procedure. In a statement, Sen. Markey said, “This legislation will support the ability of cities to decide for themselves whether or not they would like to build their own broadband networks and provide community members with high speed Internet service. … I also continue to urge the FCC to act now to use its authority to end any restrictions placed upon local communities to make these decisions for themselves.”

The FCC is expected to vote on the matter in its February 26 open meeting.

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.