Cities that want to build super-fast community internet networks received a big political boost Thursday when three influential senators introduced legislation that would preempt state laws that prohibit local governments from building their own networks.
The Community Broadband Act, which was introduced by Sen. Cory Booker, the New Jersey Democrat, along with two colleagues, is just the latest development in an accelerating national movement to empower cities that want to upgrade their networks.
The bill comes one week after President Obama declared his strong support for community internet networks, and just weeks before the Federal Communications Commission is set to rule on petitions from two cities asking the feds to preempt state bans.
Across the country, city officials have realized that super-fast communications networks are powerful tools for economic development and citizen empowerment. That's why they're racing to build such networks using fiber optic technology, which can deliver gigabit internet speeds that are 100 times the national average.
"The federal government is broken, states are moving slowly, and cities have figured out that they have to take action," said Christopher Mitchell, Director of Community Broadband Networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. "Some cities are building their own networks and some are partnering with private companies, but they're moving ahead because they've realized that no one is going to do it for them."
But there's a problem. Some 21 states have laws that ban or pose barriers to community broadband—laws that were often pushed by lobbyists working at the behest of the nation's largest cable and telecom companies, including Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T.
The industry giants oppose most community internet projects, arguing that they pose an unfair competitive threat to private industry. In a filing with the FCC last fall, AT&T opposed government supported community networks, claiming they would create a "non-level playing field."
Advocates of community networks say that restrictive state laws stifle internet deployment in areas often dominated by one or two industry giants that frequently have little incentive to expand or improve service.
"Barriers at the state level are preventing communities from developing local solutions when there is little or no choice in their Internet service provider," Sen. Edward J. Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat and a co-sponsor of the bill, said in a statement. "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."
Mitchell said Booker's bill faces an uphill battle in Congress, which isn't surprising given that many Republican lawmakers view federal efforts to preempt state laws as an unacceptable violation of "states' rights."
But this argument is largely ideological, because the federal government has ample authority to preempt state laws, Mitchell said, adding that he would prefer that local communities exercise maximum self-determination.
"In our system, states have the right to tell cities what to do, and the federal government has the right to limit state authority," Mitchell said, adding that a similar bill introduced in 2005 by Republican Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Norm Coleman, along with Democrats Frank Lautenberg, John Kerry, and Russ Feingold, enjoyed wide bipartisan support.
Since then, the issue of community broadband networks has grown much more partisan, Mitchell said, with few Republicans likely to publicly support either FCC preemption or Booker's legislation.