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The Path to Community Broadband Runs Through an Army of Telecom Lawyers

This fight has been framed as being about states' rights, but let's call it what it is: It's consumers versus the telecom industry, again.
Image: Flickr/PanAnt

Most of the cards in the battle to preserve net neutrality are already on the table. The comments are in, the court cases have been fought, the new rules have been proposed. We'll have a decision about it, sooner or later. But, in the meantime, another skirmish—over local communities' rights to take their broadband destiny into their own hands by creating local networks—has again pitted huge telecom companies against the will of the people. It's the next great battle for unlimited, open, fast access to the open web.

So far, there's been little more than talk from both the Federal Communications Commission and local communities about how to make it easier for cities to circumvent state laws banning municipal fiber optic networks. But yesterday, Chattanooga, Tennessee and Wilson, North Carolina officially petitioned the FCC to preempt laws in those states. Grab your popcorn—the real stages of this battle are about to begin, and it's not going to be pretty.


This fight has been framed as being about states' rights versus the federal government. But let's call it what it is: It's consumers versus the telecom industry, again.

Whenever the federal government attempts to preempt a state law, there's going to be some politicians (whose biggest donors may just happen to be telecom companies) who cry "big government" and try to thwart it. But Marsha Blackburn and her cadre of hypocritical conservative colleagues actually aren't the biggest roadblock standing in the way of making this happen: It's telecom companies like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T themselves.

Before the FCC even had a chance to weigh in on the petitions of Wilson and Chattanooga, the National Conference of State Legislatures threatened to sue the federal government if it preempts any state laws. Who sits on the board of the National Conference of State Legislatures, you ask? Executives from AT&T and Comcast.

"NCSL will challenge the constitutionality of any action on the part of the FCC seeking to diminish the duly adopted laws of the impacted states or prevent additional states from exercising their well-established rights to govern in the best interests of the voters," NCLS president Bruce Starr wrote to FCC chairman Tom Wheeler. "[We] caution you of the numerous decisions by the United States Supreme Court with regard to the relationship between the state and its political subdivisions."


Thing is—it's no secret that most of the 20 states that have put limits on the creation of locally owned fiber networks have done so under the pressure of big telecom company lobbyists, who have increasingly tried to exert their influence on state and even local levels.

Through an organization called the American Legislative Exchange Council, telecom companies have sent "model legislation" (read: laws written by big telecom) to dozens of states. In North Carolina, a law bans Wilson from expanding its successful fiber service to neighboring areas. When was this law passed? And how? By telecom-backed state lawmakers who received a ready-made law written by telecom-paid lawyers.

"The [Wilson] network has been operating in the black and is on track to pay back its debt on time," according to research published by the Institute for Local Self Reliance. "However, a change in state law pushed by Time Warner Cable, CenturyLink, and others has limited [the network's] potential expansion to the county borders, frustrating nearby communities that hoped to be served by it."

This is not at all uncommon.

What I'm saying is, big telecom is around every corner. They're fighting this at every level they possibly can. Why? It's cheaper.

"The equation is very simple. Are they going to spend the money to upgrade their infrastructure or are they going to hire lobbyists?," Catharine Rice, a project director with the Coalition for Local Internet Choice said. "The cost of one lobbyist, the cost of five lobbyists, the cost of 10 lobbyists is much less than upgrading their infrastructure. They will hire the lobbyists."

Telecom companies, working through the NCSL, have already pledged to sue. These cases take years, and they take millions of dollars. Wilson and Chattanooga may one day get to expand their incredible services, and other cities might come out of the woodwork, as well. But it's not going to come easily.