Republicans to FCC: Don't force municipal broadband on us

Republicans decry the FCC's tentative plans to reverse laws prohibiting municipal broadband networks, citing states' rights

Potential plans by the Federal Communications Commission to change how states can restrict the creation of municipal broadband networks, whether to serve rural areas or to compete with telco monoliths, may run into serious political static.

According to Ars Technica, Republicans are speaking out against the possibility of the FCC overturning state laws that prohibit municipal broadband.

One cited speaker is Matthew Perry, chief of staff for Commissioner Ajit Pai (R-N.Y.) at the FCC, who warned the National Council of State Legislatures that allowing the FCC to preempt state law is based on bad legal ground, since Congress has not explicitly empowered the FCC to do so. "Any FCC attempt to preempt such state laws would be unlawful and sure to meet its end in court," he said.

On a more partisan note, Perry further pointed out that any such attempts to circumvent states' rights by the now-Democrat-led FCC could simply be upended or reversed after an upcoming election.

Despite all this, FCC head Tom Wheeler maintains there's a strong case for supporting municipal broadband. In a letter to Representative Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), he reasserted that "[anti-municipal broadband laws] have the effect of limiting competition in [many states], contrary to almost two decades of bipartisan federal communications policy that is focused on encouraging competition" and that "state laws that directly conflict with critical federal laws and policy may be subject to preemption in appropriate circumstances."

The struggle over municipal broadband has been one part of the most recent incarnation of the FCC's enforcement of Net neutrality. Wheeler's most recent proposals for Net neutrality rules have been widely criticized for having lots of snarl but not much bite because of the giant loopholes it leaves the telecom industry to allow, for example, premium traffic lanes.

Political pressure has shown up in most every phase of the Net neutrality discussion. Talk of having the FCC reclassify broadband providers as a utility, and thus subject to more stringent regulations, has been met with stern opposition by Republican members of the House of Representatives. The FCC may be reluctant to perform the reclassification because it might unleash other forms of political backlash: Interfering with back-end peering deals, for instance, could be construed as an obstruction of commerce.

Many of the objections to reclassification, including the most recent examples, are worded along the same pro-business lines as the anti-municipal-broadband bills. State-level restrictions against municipal broadband have been in place for years and can be traced back to pressure from ISPs leery of losing customers. Twenty states now enforce such restrictions, often pitched as pro-business measures -- such as the Preserving Innovation in Telecom Act of 2005, written to prohibit municipal broadband in areas already served by commercial providers.

Other times, those restrictions are described as preventing wastes of resources that are "not in the public interest" -- part of the title of a 2005 New Millennium Research Council study claiming that municipal broadband was likely to be costly and built on outdated technology. The Council, though, was one of a number of groups purported to be backed directly by the telecom industry for the sake of astroturfing, according to nonprofit open-government advocacy group Common Cause.

If Congress tilts more Republican after the midterm elections, to say nothing of a Republican presidency in 2016, that would make it easier for legislation to be passed, both at the federal and state level, that further restricts or outrights prevent the creation of municipal broadband networks. Such a move would leave even fewer alternatives to the existing, dominant broadband carriers, since maverick alternatives like Google Fiber are still too young and too sparse in their coverage to change the landscape.

This story, "Republicans to FCC: Don't force municipal broadband on us," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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