On February 26th, The FCC plans to vote on helping two communities overcome state laws that've impeded their ability to build out municipal broadband networks. The Washington Post reports that Tom Wheeler is likely to circulate a draft decision to commissioners this week. Last month, the commission signaled it would be taking up petitions from Chattanooga, Tennessee and Wilson, North Carolina, two cities looking to create their own, local alternatives to service from powerful ISPs like Comcast.
Each wants the FCC to overturn state laws that have become barriers to progress in that effort. Tennessee, for instance, severely restricts just where cities can build out the infrastructure necessary for high-speed broadband. And as The Washington Post notes, public internet providers in North Carolina are forbidden from offering prices lower than those available from Comcast, Verizon, and other private businesses. Similarly burdensome laws extend to many other states, as well.
This is just the beginning of a long battle
Any steps the FCC takes to help Chattanooga and Wilson get over those hurdles will be tailored to the circumstances in those cities alone. But the commission's reasoning — that state laws are needlessly stalling deployment of broadband — will likely be applied to similar arguments between cities and ISPs as they pop up across the US. The FCC believes section 706 of the Communications Act gives it the necessary authority to intervene in circumstances where broadband deployment is being held back.
But Republican lawmakers (in a GOP-led Congress) disagree and have floated legislation to dial back the powers granted to the FCC by section 706. President Obama has voiced his desire to see the FCC dismantle state laws that have handcuffed cities trying to compete with massive corporations — a strategy supporters believe this will result in better prices and improved broadband speeds for consumers. February 26th is shaping up to be a big day for Wheeler's FCC; the commission is preparing to vote on new net neutrality frameworks on the same date.