Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the Tennessee Republican, has built a reputation as one of the most conservative members of Congress, especially on tech policy. A strong free market advocate, Blackburn vehemently opposes net neutrality, which she calls "socialistic," and has been a strong critic of what she views as activist Federal Communications Commission policy.
Blackburn has also been a major recipient of financial support from the nation's largest telecom and cable companies.
So it came as no surprise when Blackburn introduced an amendment to a key appropriations bill that would prevent the FCC from preempting state laws that block or impede the ability of cities and municipalities to create new local broadband networks. On Wednesday, the amendment passed in the House of Representatives by a vote of 233-200.
Across the country, major cable and telecom companies have battled attempts to create community broadband networks, which they claim put them at a competitive disadvantage. Some 20 states have laws on the books that pose barriers to community broadband efforts—laws that in many cases were pushed by cable and telecom industry lobbyists.
These are the states with laws against community fiber. Image: MuniNetworks
Community broadband advocates say that new, locally developed networks can inject a much-needed dose of competition, especially in areas where one or two incumbent providers dominate the market. Such community networks, which are often faster than existing services, can expand consumer choice and lower prices.
"We have a situation throughout most of the country in which people want greater choice, faster speeds, and lower prices," said Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks program at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. "One of the avenues for achieving those goals is community broadband. Rep. Blackburn is now leading an effort to take that choice away."
Earlier this month, EPB, the city-owned utility in Chattanooga, Tenn.—Blackburn's home state—that is held up as a national model for community broadband, announced that it is considering filing a petition to the FCC in an effort to expand its gigabit Internet service to neighboring communities. But state law prohibits the company from offering Internet and video services to any areas outside its service area.
“Communities should have the right, at the local level, to determine their broadband futures," Harold DePriest, EPB’s president and CEO, said in a statement.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler appears to be sympathetic to that argument, and he's signaled that he's prepared to use the FCC's authority to preempt state laws that erect barriers to community broadband. Wheeler specifically cited Chattanooga's network in a blog post, writing that it is in the "best interests of consumers and competition that the FCC exercises its power to preempt state laws that ban or restrict competition from community broadband."
Blackburn claims that such a move would be an egregious violation of "states' rights" and an unacceptable overreach by the federal government.
"We don’t need unelected bureaucrats in Washington telling our states what they can and can’t do with respect to protecting their limited taxpayer dollars and private enterprises," Blackburn said in a statement. "This Congress cannot sit idly by and let an independent agency trample on our states’ rights."
"The argument that Blackburn puts forth is not coherent. It's just politics."
What Blackburn did not mention in her statement was that the nation's largest cable and telecom companies, which have repeatedly funneled buckets of money through political action committees into her reelection campaign coffers, vehemently oppose community broadband efforts. These corporate giants, which already dominate most markets, claim that such initiatives represent unfair competition.
Over the last decade, AT&T and Verizon have been Blackburn's second and third largest donors, pouring $66,750 and $59,650 into her campaigns, respectively, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. She's also received $56,000 from the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, an industry trade group, and $36,000 from Comcast, the nation's largest cable company.
On issue after issue, Blackburn has sided with these corporate interests, frequently using conservative ideological principles like "states' rights" or "limited government" to justify her votes.
"Blackburn's positions line up very well with the cable and telephone companies that give a lot of money to her campaigns," said Mitchell. "In this case, Blackburn is doing what it takes to benefit the cable and telephone companies rather than the United States, which needs more choices, faster speeds, and lower prices."
Mitchell says that he's sympathetic to the arguments against "preemption"—after all, he works for an organization called the Institute for Local Self-Reliance—but points out that while Blackburn opposes the federal government inserting itself into state law, she apparently has no problem with the states telling cities and municipalities what they can and cannot do.
"The argument that Blackburn puts forth is not coherent," Mitchell said. "It's just politics."