Congress, FCC Battle Over San Francisco Broadband Law

The ordinance, known as Article 52, passed in December 2016, preventing owners of both residential and commercial multi-unit buildings from blocking tenants from accessing the Internet service provider of their choice.

by Sophia Kunthara, San Francisco Chronicle / July 2, 2019
Shutterstock

(TNS) — The Federal Communications Commission is seeking to overrule a San Francisco city ordinance that was enacted to give tenants in multi-unit buildings more freedom to choose their Internet service provider.

The commission is set to vote this month on a proposal that would preempt San Francisco’s law, which says landlords can’t deny Internet service providers access to existing wiring within buildings. Chairman Ajit Pai called the ordinance “a policy which deters broadband deployment” in a June 18 blog post.

The ordinance, known as Article 52, passed in December 2016, preventing owners of both residential and commercial multi-unit buildings from blocking tenants from accessing the Internet service provider of their choice.

At the time the ordinance was passed, then-Supervisor Mark Farrell said it appeared to be the first law of its kind enacted by a city in the United States. Pai called the city’s law an outlier.

The proposal has already received some pushback from lawmakers, with Rep. Katie Porter, D-Irvine, introducing a budget amendment that would bar the commission from finalizing a draft rule that would overrule local laws that encourage broadband competition. The House of Representatives passed a package of amendments including Porter’s last week, but the Senate must also pass the language for it to become law.

“The communications industry is in dire need of more competition,” Porter said in a statement. “San Francisco’s Article 52 has been incredibly effective in promoting broadband competition — giving residents the benefit of competition and choice in the market, increasing their service quality while decreasing their monthly bills.”

Though San Francisco’s law would seem to favor smaller, regional Internet service providers over big telecom and cable companies like AT&T and Comcast, the reality is more complex. Pai’s proposal would create a national standard for sharing infrastructure, said Nathan Patrick, the chief technology officer at Santa Rosa Internet provider Sonic. So while Sonic remains “supportive” of the San Francisco ordinance, he said, “there isn’t an effective way to share access to in-use wiring, so the proposed rollback of this provision provides a clear national standard that can be followed not only in San Francisco, but in markets beyond.”

Monkeybrains, a San Francisco Internet service provider which focuses on the city, was less equivocal in its support for the city ordinance. Article 52’s “provisions are really reasonable and they serve to make it better for tenants and better for smaller (Internet service providers) to basically have a larger pool of customers and for customers in large multi-dwelling buildings to have more options,” said Preston Rhea, an engineer for policy programs at Monkeybrains.

Rhea said that since Article 52 passed, Monkeybrains has been far more successful in getting customers in such buildings.

The commission is set to address the issue at its meeting on July 10.

©2019 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Platforms & Programs