Friday, February 27, 2015

FCC allows cites to expand broadband into rural area, overriding state laws; court action likely

Greenlight Community Broadband
in Wilson, N.C. (Travis Dove, NYT)
Before voting on net-neutrality rules on Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission voted along party lines to allow municipal utilities in Wilson, N.C., and Chattanooga to go outside their defined service areas to provide broadband to rural areas.

The vote puts the FCC on the side of local governments and municipal utilities that have set up broadband systems but are constrained by laws in 20 states that prohibit governments from getting into the business and/or limit public utilities to their existing service areas. It is likely to be challenged in court by the telecommuncations companies that got state legislatures to pass such laws.

"The Electric Power Board of Chattanooga (EPB), which serves some 170,000 residents and businesses, created a fiber-optic network that allowed the company to deliver energy more reliably, an effort to reduce power outages," Reid Wilson reports for The Washington Post. "Along with power, the network can also deliver cable, phone and Internet service to residents throughout its service area—Internet that, by the way, achieves some of the fastest speeds in the country."

A 1999 Tennessee law "prohibits EPB from offering television and Internet service to residents who live in more rural areas outside Chattanooga’s actual city limits," Wilson writes. "EPB filed a petition with the FCC last summer, seeking permission to expand beyond the city limits. On Thursday, the FCC agreed to pre-empt state laws in Tennessee and North Carolina, where the city of Wilson also sought permission to extend broadband coverage to neighboring communities. The FCC's order said federal law allows it to preempt state laws that conflict with federal regulations or policies." The two Republican commissioners disagreed, and previewed the arguments that are likely to be made in a telecoms' lawsuit, Steve Lohr of The New York Times reports.

Tim Marema of the Daily Yonder salutes the ruling and gives other examples where state laws have prevented expansion of rural broadband.

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