It's been called "the next big fight" in telecom policy: the battle over whether the Federal Communications Commission should preempt state laws that ban or discourage local communities from building their own high-speed broadband Internet networks.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has signaled that he's prepared to do just that. On Tuesday, he received a boost from two influential lawmakers who offered a bit of political cover for what could be a bruising fight with broadband companies and their allies on Capitol Hill who vehemently oppose such a move.
Senator Edward J. Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat, and Representative Mike Doyle, the Pennsylvania Democrat, issued a statement on Tuesday urging Wheeler to use the FCC's authority to remove roadblocks to community broadband. The lawmakers said they were encouraged by Wheeler's response to a letter they wrote last month inquiring about the FCC's plans to encourage community broadband.
Many local governments across the country have realized that ubiquitous, affordable, high-speed Internet access fosters economic growth and expands opportunities for citizens. But many parts of the country only have one or two broadband providers—companies with little incentive to improve service and lower prices—and in some rural areas broadband service simply isn't available at all.
Now, cities and municipalities like Chattanooga, Tenn. and Wilson, NC are racing to take matters into their own hands by building next-generation broadband networks for their citizens. But there's a problem. Some 20 states have laws on the books that pose barriers to community broadband efforts—laws that in many cases were pushed by cable and telecom industry lobbyists.
As my colleague Jason Koebler has detailed, big broadband companies have for years battled attempts by local communities to build their own networks, often by using misinformation campaigns, intervening in local elections, or old-fashioned lobbying.
In response to the letter sent by Markey, Doyle, and their colleagues Senators Al Franken, Amy Klobuchar, Richard Blumenthal, and Cory Booker, along with Representatives Henry A. Waxman and Anna G. Eshoo, Wheeler wrote that there is reason to believe state laws restricting community broadband "have the effect of limiting competition in those areas, contrary to almost two decades bipartisan federal communications policy that is focused on encouraging competition."
"I respect the important role of state governments in our federal system, but I know that state laws that directly conflict with critical federal laws and policy may be subject to preemption in appropriate circumstances," Wheeler wrote.
Last month, Chattanooga and Wilson officially asked the federal government to help them bypass state laws banning them from expanding their community owned, gigabit broadband networks to underserved citizens in surrounding areas. The Chattanooga network operator, EPB, is prohibited from offering internet and video services to any areas outside its service area, thanks to a Tennessee state law that was pushed by broadband industry interests.
In a statement issued Tuesday, Markey and Doyle said they were encouraged by Wheeler's response. "I welcome Chairman Wheeler's response and his continuing interest in municipal broadband, and I strongly encourage him and the FCC to take quick and decisive action to lift restrictions that limit or prevent communities from addressing their own broadband needs," said Doyle.
What the broadband market needs today are more options and greater local choice
"What the broadband market needs today are more options and greater local choice, not barriers that prevent cities and towns from participating fully in the global economy," said Markey. "I encourage the Commission to use its authority to ensure municipalities have the power to make decisions about their broadband infrastructure."
If Wheeler decides to use the FCC's authority to preempt state laws limiting community broadband, he will likely face a fierce backlash from lawmakers allied with the broadband industry. That's why the support of Markey and Doyle could come in handy during any political fight over the issue on Capitol Hill.
Representative Marsha Blackburn, the Tennessee Republican who has received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the cable and telecommunications industry, is leading the fight against the FCC. Last month, she introduced an amendment to a key appropriations bill that would prevent the FCC from preempting such state laws.
"We don't need unelected bureaucrats in Washington telling our states what they can and can't do with respect to protecting their limited taxpayer dollars and private enterprises," Blackburn said in a statement. "This Congress cannot sit idly by and let an independent agency trample on our states' rights."
Over the last decade, AT&T and Verizon have been Blackburn's second and third largest donors, pouring $66,750 and $59,650 into her campaigns, respectively, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. She's also received $56,000 from the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, an industry trade group, and $36,000 from Comcast, the nation's largest cable company.