Two cities—Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Wilson, North Carolina—have officially asked the federal government to help them bypass state laws banning them from expanding their community owned, gigabit fiber internet connections.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler has made clear that he believes the FCC has the authority to preempt state laws that erect barriers to community broadband efforts, which are proliferating around the country.
In a blog post last month, Wheeler specifically cited a network operated by EPB, a municipal power utility in Chattanooga, that uses a 100 percent fiber optic backbone to deliver gigabit internet speeds to the community.
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," Wheeler wrote.
Now, Wheeler has a chance to back up that rhetoric with action.
On Thursday, EPB announced that it has filed a petition with the FCC "in an effort to respond to neighboring communities’ requests for access to the company’s gigabit enabled high-speed internet service."
As my colleague Jason Koebler recently pointed out, many of the areas surrounding Chattanooga are "too rural for it to make economic sense for a major telecom to lay with fiber," leaving residents in those areas in what EPB calls "a digital desert" just outside its service territory, "where citizens and businesses have little or no broadband internet connectivity."
But Tennessee is one of 20 states with laws on the books that pose barriers to community broadband efforts—laws that in many cases were pushed by cable and telecom industry lobbyists. Thanks to Tennessee state law, EPB is prohibited from offering internet and video services to any areas outside its service area.
EPB is asking the federal government to use its authority to preempt that state law, so that it can bring its service to the underserved, largely rural areas surrounding Chattanooga. Wilson made a simultaneous filing Thursday.
"At EPB, we believe that high-speed internet is the critical infrastructure for the 21st century," Harold DePriest, EPB’s President and CEO, said in a statement. "True broadband infrastructure provides access to information, jobs, and education and gives citizens and businesses the opportunity to fully participate in—and to lead—our emerging knowledge economy."
"Communities should have the right, at the local level, to determine their broadband futures," DePriest added.
In states throughout the country, major cable and telecom companies have battled attempts to create community broadband networks, which they claim put them at a competitive disadvantage.
Last week, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the Tennessee Republican who has received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the cable and telecommunications industry, introduced an amendment to a key appropriations bill that would prevent the FCC from preempting such state laws. The amendment passed in the House of Representatives by a vote of 233-200, but is unlikely to make it through the Senate.
“We have just received the petitions filed by EPB of Chattanooga and the City of Wilson, North Carolina and are reviewing them," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a statement emailed to Motherboard. "We look forward to a full opportunity for comment by all interested parties, and will carefully review the specific legal, factual, and policy issues before us.”