Advocates for municipal broadband enjoyed a huge victory at the federal level last month, when the FCC supported petitions from Wilson, N.C., and the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga, Tenn., to remove state laws restricting network expansion.
While the FCC’s decision applies only to the laws in North Carolina and Tennessee, the commissioners made it clear they’d be open to hearing petitions from other local governments regarding removal of laws that hamper build-out of other municipal broadband efforts. Experts, however, believe it’s only a matter of time before the commission’s decision is challenged in court.
Government Technology interviewed Chris Mitchell, policy director of Next Century Cities, and Mount Vernon, Wash., Mayor Jill Boudreau on the FCC’s ruling, and what it means for cities and counties moving forward.
The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.
GT: What was your reaction to the FCC decision?
Chris Mitchell: I felt this sense of relief because … we fully expected this to be a vote in our favor, but until they do it, you never know what’s happening. So just relief and really excitement for the people in the room. There were several people there from around North Carolina and Tennessee that will be impacted by this, and it was great to be there with them.
Jill Boudreau: Relief. As mayor, I felt the public interest was served.
GT: So what’s the big takeaway here for local governments?
CM: That other municipalities will have an opportunity to petition the FCC if they believe they have barriers preventing them from expanding, or to build. But I don’t think we’ll see an immediate flood [of petitions], because there will be a legal challenge, and communities will wait to see if the [FCC’s] decision will remain in effect during the appeal.
JB: That there is support for communities that have been thwarted from serving the public with essential telecommunications infrastructure. How crazy would it be for me to apologize to my community for not being able to build a sewer pipe because of a private corporation’s interest?
GT: Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly noted that the scope of the FCC’s order only applies in a situation where states have partial bans on municipal broadband networks. As a result, the door is open for states to outright ban local government networks entirely. What are your thoughts on that?
CM: I think that’s an instance of the FCC trying to figure out how to strike the appropriate balance. The FCC is tasked with removing barriers to broadband deployment and states have a fundamental right to regulate cities. So if I had to get into the head of the reasoning, if states want to say cities are not allowed to build a network, then fine, they can do that. But they have to be honest about it. They can’t go pretending that they are allowing cities to do it, while having all of these barriers that effectively prohibit it.
JB: Commissioners Pai and O’Rielly seemed to focus on constitutional and partisan ideology, and not the simple intent to promote competition.
GT: So what’s next and do you have anything else to add about the issue?
CM: In terms of the appeal, I suspect it’s already been written. Sen. [Thom] Tillis [R-North Carolina] and Rep. [Marsha] Blackburn [R-Tennessee] have already introduced legislation that says Congress wants to remove the FCC’s ability to interfere with state laws. Which is an interesting admission, because that suggests that Congress, if they pass that, believe the FCC has that power … from people that say the FCC doesn’t have that power. If the FCC didn’t … you wouldn’t need a bill to remove it.
JB: Our city has proven that public-private partnerships and broadband deployments work. We applaud the FCC for recognizing that modern policy is required to protect the public interest and ensure competition.
Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.