FCC May Kill Tennessee Law Limiting City Internet Service

Republicans don’t want the agency to “usurp” state power.

Job seeker Floxy Gold looks at a computer at the South Los Angeles WorkSource Center on Jan. 13, 2010 in California.
National Journal
June 10, 2014, 2:25 p.m.

The Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion may nul­li­fy a Ten­ness­ee law that re­stricts the abil­it­ies of cit­ies to build their own high-speed In­ter­net net­works.

Chat­tanooga, Tenn., has built a mu­ni­cip­al broad­band net­work to con­sumers’ homes, but a state law is pre­vent­ing the city gov­ern­ment from ex­pand­ing the ser­vice to more res­id­ents.

In a blog post Tues­day, FCC Chair­man Tom Wheel­er said broad­band pro­jects like the one in Chat­tanooga are bring­ing new com­pet­i­tion and spur­ring eco­nom­ic growth. He ar­gued that loc­al gov­ern­ments “shouldn’t be stopped by state laws pro­moted by cable and tele­phone com­pan­ies that don’t want that com­pet­i­tion.”

“I be­lieve that it is in the best in­terests of con­sumers and com­pet­i­tion that the FCC ex­er­cises its power to pree­mpt state laws that ban or re­strict com­pet­i­tion from com­munity broad­band,” he said. “Giv­en the op­por­tun­ity, we will do so.”

But the move could face res­ist­ance from Re­pub­lic­an law­makers. El­ev­en GOP sen­at­ors sent a let­ter to Wheel­er last week, warn­ing him not to “usurp” state power.

The sen­at­ors, led by Deb Fisc­her of Neb­raska and Ron John­son of Wis­con­sin, said it is “deeply troub­ling” that the FCC may “force tax­pay­er fun­ded com­pet­i­tion against broad­band pro­viders — against the wishes of states.”

If the FCC tries to strike down a state law, it would likely point to Sec­tion 706 of the Tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions Act, which gives the agency the au­thor­ity to pro­mote the de­ploy­ment of broad­band. State laws that re­strict mu­ni­cip­al broad­band could be in vi­ol­a­tion of that pro­vi­sion, ac­cord­ing to the FCC.

Har­old Feld, the seni­or vice pres­id­ent of con­sumer ad­vocacy group Pub­lic Know­ledge, said Wheel­er will prob­ably not launch a broad ini­ti­at­ive to at­tack state laws around the coun­try. In­stead, the FCC chief will prob­ably wait for groups or in­di­vidu­als to file com­plaints about spe­cif­ic state laws, Feld pre­dicted.

The blog post ap­pears to be an “in­vit­a­tion” for chal­lenges to the Ten­ness­ee law, Feld said.

He ar­gued that cit­ies should be al­lowed to build broad­band net­works to fuel eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment, just like they’re al­lowed to build sports sta­di­ums.

“We need broad­band. We need com­pet­i­tion,” Feld said. “The fact is that loc­al gov­ern­ments ought to have the flex­ib­il­ity to de­cide the ser­vices they need.”

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