FCC: You Can Build Municipal Broadband Even If State Says No
Credit: Ed Yourdon
February 3, 2015

About ten years ago, the City of Philadelphia took a stab at getting a citywide wireless system. I don't know if it was by design or sheer incompetence that it never took off, but living in a city and state dominated by the corporate presence of Comcast leads me to suspect the worst. I would absolutely love to have a cheaper alternative to Comcast -- and no, Verizon FIOS isn't any cheaper.

So this is very encouraging news:

The Federal Communications Commission is going to allow two cities to ignore state laws that ban them from building community-owned broadband networks, according to chairman Tom Wheeler.It's big news for Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Wilson, North Carolina, and it's a signal to other cities in the 21 states that have laws restricting municipal broadband that they can start considering their own networks without worrying about their state laws.

Some quick background: Many cities that are poorly served by existing cable and internet companies decide to build their own networks. It's a particularly attractive option for cities and towns in rural areas, and President Obama and Chairman Wheeler have been pushing it as something cities should consider if they are unhappy with their current service.

But many states have laws restricting the practice, which were mostly lobbied for by telecom companies. Wheeler and Obama have said they'd use a process known as preemption, in which the federal government invalidates part of a state law (at least on a case-by-case basis).

Wheeler decided today that North Carolina's and Tennessee's laws could be preempted. The full commission will vote on his decision later this month.It's exciting, but the move also doesn't necessarily mean the floodgates are open.

"Federal preemption is a serious matter, so it has to be done on a case-by-case basis," an FCC spokesperson told me. "It's not like you do one and then you can clear them all. There still has to be examination of the facts."

That could be problematic. Chattanooga and Wilson both already had been operating their own networks (these petitions allow the cities to expand their services to nearby towns), and thus already have experience in the telecommunications and telecommunications law space. That's important, considering that the petitions theyfiled are roughly 60 pages long and are very lawyer-y.

Presumably, future petitions would have to be similarly thorough, which is still a pretty big hurdle for a small town to jump over. The lawyer problem has been pointed to before as one of the reasons why many cities never attempt this.

But it's still good news. And the decision may be precedent-setting in Tennessee and North Carolina, at least.

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