The Congressional Bill That Would Save Community Broadband Networks Nationwide

A Silicon Valley lawmaker pushes back against Big Cable.

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Sep 14 2016, 12:53pm

Rep. Eshoo's bill would expressly allow local communities to deploy their own broadband networks. Image: BT/Flickr

An influential Democratic lawmaker on Tuesday introduced federal legislation to help communities across the country develop locally-controlled communications networks, setting up a fierce battle with anti-municipal broadband Republicans in Congress.

The Community Broadband Act of 2016, which was sponsored by Rep. Anna Eshoo, the California Democrat, is designed to accompany a similar Senate measure backed by Sen. Cory Booker, the New Jersey Democrat, and Sen. Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat, along with several of their colleagues.

Eshoo's legislation, which is expected to face fierce opposition from Republicans, comes one month after a federal court ruled that the Federal Communications Commission lacks the authority to preempt Comcast and AT&T-backed state laws that pose barriers to community broadband development.

"I'm disappointed that a recent court ruling blocked the FCC's efforts to allow local communities to decide for themselves how best to ensure that their residents have broadband access," Eshoo said in a statement on Tuesday. "This legislation clears the way for local communities to make their own decisions instead of powerful special interests in state capitals."

Eshoo's bill faces steep odds of success as long as Republicans control Congress, but it nevertheless represents an important development in the nationwide movement to help local communities build their own broadband networks in order to lower prices, boost speeds, and increase competition.

Eshoo's legislation would block any state law that prohibits a city, municipality or public utility from providing "advanced telecommunications capability." Nearly two dozen states have passed such laws, often at the behest of the nation's largest cable and phone companies, including Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T, as my colleague Jason Koebler has documented.

The nation's telecom giants and their GOP political allies often claim that locally-controlled networks would put companies like Comcast and AT&T at a competitive disadvantage, hence the need for restrictive state laws. But community broadband advocates say that these corporate giants are just trying to protect their monopoly power against publicly-owned services that could deliver faster speeds at lower prices.

"Rather than restricting local communities in need of broadband, we should be empowering them to make the decisions they determine are in the best interests of their constituents," said Eshoo, who represents the heart of California's Silicon Valley, and is a longtime champion of pro-consumer technology policies, including the FCC's plan to increase competition in the video "set-top box" market.

Community broadband advocates were dealt a bitter blow last month when a federal court ruled that the FCC lacked the authority to grant a request from Chattanooga, Tennessee and Wilson, North Carolina for the feds to preempt state laws that block those cities from expanding their locally-controlled networks to underserved communities in neighboring areas. Two weeks ago, the FCC said it would not appeal that decision to the Supreme Court.

Christopher Mitchell, Director of Community Broadband Networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, told Motherboard that he's "excited to see Rep. Eshoo's bill that would restore local authority to communities. Local governments need to be empowered to decide how to improve internet access rather than leaving their businesses and residents at the mercy of a few big monopolies."

"However," Mitchell added, "the big cable and telephone companies are so influential, with campaign contributions especially, that the path for this bill is quite challenging." He warned of potential unintended consequences if lobbyists for AT&T, Comcast, and Charter are able to insert language that "could make investment and competition more difficult."

No lawmaker is more likely to oppose Eshoo's bill than Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the influential Tennessee Republican who has received mountains of campaign cash from the likes of AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast, according to the Center For Responsive Politics. Blackburn has repeatedly acted to undermine community broadband development efforts.

Eshoo's bill and its Senate counterpart face an uphill battle as long as Republicans control Congress, but the prospects for community broadband legislation could improve dramatically if Democrats are able to win control of the House and the Senate in November's elections.

Jim Baller, lead counsel for Chattanooga and Wilson in the FCC's preemption proceeding and President of the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, praised Eshoo for introducing the new legislation, and challenged Congress to pass the measure to prove that lawmakers really care about local self-determination.

"I applaud Rep. Eshoo for introducing this bill, and I hope that it will be enacted promptly, along with Sen. Cory Booker's bill in the Senate," Baller told Motherboard. "This will lay to rest, once and for all, any doubts about Congress's support for local internet choice."

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