Legislation on municipal broadband service won't “break the Internet” like Kim Kardashian’s risqué photo spread in Paper magazine. But a new federal proposal that permits local governments to create or expand their own high-speed networks is a serious eye-opener and potential game-changer in the telecommunications world, according to some experts.
S. 240, the Community Broadband Act, introduced last month by U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, gives cities and counties the right to become Internet service providers or build out existing services in their regions. And while partisan politics may doom the measure, advocates for local control believe the effort is already a victory because of the publicity the issue has received.
Craig Settles, a national broadband analyst, called Booker’s bill “necessary pressure” and said the political weight behind it could make state restrictions on community broadband networks less of a factor in the future.
“You may start to see some of those laws be rolled back, if not by federal mandate, by efforts within the very states themselves,” Settles said.
Approximately 20 states have laws on the books that prevent or restrict municipalities from creating their own broadband networks. Wilson, N.C., and the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga, Tenn., filed petitions with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) earlier this year asking it to vacate those laws. On Feb. 2, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said the commission will support the petitions.
Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, co-sponsored the Community Broadband Act with Sens. Edward Markey, D-Mass; and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
In an email to Government Technology, Booker said he’s a proponent of giving local governments the decision-making power over broadband expansion because they’re better positioned to understand the their unique regional needs.
Booker said that while there have been examples of municipal networks failing over the years, the choice to light up a broadband expansion project should reside with those who know the community – and its financial obligations – best.
“As with any other decisions they make, I have faith that local communities are well suited to make their own analysis of the costs and benefits involved for their unique circumstance and to be responsible for the outcomes,” Booker said.
Chris Mitchell, director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and a national expert on community broadband, called Booker’s legislation an opportunity for Republicans who oppose the FCC meddling with state laws to show support for local authority.
“If we don’t see any Republicans supporting it, we may be led to believe that they are just searching for a convenient justification to do what powerful cable lobbyists are demanding,” Mitchell said.
President Barack Obama put municipal broadband in the spotlight last month, when he went public with his support of expanded connectivity in the U.S. But Mitchell said the President’s attention to the issue could be a double-edged sword if Republicans vote against the Community Broadband Act as an act of defiance toward Obama’s leadership.
“This is very unfortunate because as we recently noted, nearly three-fourths of all communities with a city-wide municipal network vote reliably Republican,” Mitchell said. “On Main Street, this decision is nonpartisan. But in D.C. today, everything is forced into a partisan lens.”
Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.