New FCC boss Tom Wheeler has now stated several times
he's going to take aim at incumbent-ISP state laws that ban or prohibit towns and cities from deploying their own broadband -- even in cases where nobody else will. Chattanooga utility EPB broadband
is ready for Wheeler to actually start following through with this promise any day now, and is giving the FCC boss the opportunity to show his rhetoric on the subject isn't empty.
The city utility wants to expand their successful 1 Gbps municipal broadband service to additional users, but finds themselves running up against protectionist Tennessee laws
literally written and purchased by the likes of Comcast. This week EPB formally filed a request with the FCC
(pdf) urging them to overturn a portion of Tennessee's law, one of twenty such laws nationwide.
Under said law, EPB is allowed to offer voice service anywhere in the State, but the law prohibits the company from using those very-same lines to offer broadband outside of their current electrical area. That restriction obviously only really benefits Comcast, who tried to sue the project out of existence
before turning to the state legislative process.
The group, via lawyer Jim Baller (who I've talked to about this issue many times over the last decade
), argues that the FCC's mandate is to ensure the deployment of broadband "in a reasonable timely basis," and as such they can and should declare the restrictive portion of the law unenforceable:
EPB petitions the Commission to find that advanced telecommunications capabilities, including high-speed broadband services, are not being deployed on a reasonable and timely basis in communities near EPB’s electric service area because of the territorial restriction in Section 601 that limits EPB’s deployment of Internet and video programming to its electric service area. The Commission should find that, absent Section 601’s electric service area limitation, broadband investment would occur on a reasonable and timely basis in the areas surrounding EPB’s current footprint. The Commission should therefore take immediate action to remove the barrier created by the territorial restriction contained in Section 601 and declare it to be unenforceable.
Comcast and AT&T have quickly moved to stop the FCC's potential assault on their protectionist laws via both lawsuit threats via proxy groups
, and via politicians like Martha Blackburn, who, after receiving campaign contributions
from PACs tied to both companies -- has passed a bill in the House threatening to strip FCC funding if the agency dares to act. It's not a fight that would be easy, but it's a fight the FCC should win -- and it's a long-overdue fight that must be had if we're to finally start taking broadband competition problems seriously.
As with consumer advocate requests that ISPs be reclassified as utilities as a solution to neutrality concerns, this is another area where Wheeler can prove he's either thrown aside his long-history of industry lobbying and is ready to fight for consumers, or is just another in a very long line of FCC bosses too timid to meaningfully challenge deep-pocketed campaign contributors and the status quo.Update
: The city of Wilson, North Carolina has filed their own request for the FCC
(pdf) calling for FCC action against a similar bill bought and paid for by Time Warner Cable in that state.