Even though a favorable net neutrality ruling from the FCC appears imminent, the vibrancy of the Internet economy remains at risk so long as it’s tethered to a few, powerful oligopoly Internet Service Providers. These ISPs have tacitly divvied up geographic markets across the country, blocking competition and offering far lower speeds and higher costs to both consumers and businesses than those in peer nations. Due to aggressive ISP lobbying, nearly 20 states have laws on the books that prevent municipalities from providing broadband networks. ISPs sought these rules to prevent competition for broadband customers. Though net neutrality grabbed most of the telecom policy headlines over the past year, the FCC and the White House have both signalled an interest in overruling these anti-competitive bans on community broadband. Today, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler decided to take action, circulating a draft decision that would preempt such laws in North Carolina and Tennessee.
We’re heartened by the FCC’s recognition that laws like these provide no public benefit and only serve to protect local cable monopolies. A lack of competition in broadband markets is one of the key reasons the U.S. ranks so poorly in global Internet affordability and speed. With the FCC having recently modified its definition of broadband to reflect the changing needs of a globally connected society, it is no surprise that the FCC would use all the tools at its disposal to promote broadband competition in order to bring U.S. speeds up to global standards.
Cities like Chattanooga, TN, Danville, VA, and Lafayette, LA are perfect examples of why communities should be given the option to build networks for their citizens. Unwilling to wait for the incumbent ISPs to upgrade their networks, these cities took it upon themselves to provide fiber infrastructure for their communities, drawing startup activity and growing the local economy, in addition to providing a much needed service to residents.
The FCC’s authority to overturn anti-community broadband laws flows from Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act, which gives the Commission authority to promulgate rules to promote the deployment of advanced broadband. Those closely following the net neutrality debate know that Section 706 is insufficient by itself to protect an open Internet, but giving the FCC the authority to prevent ISPs from using their monopoly power and lobbying might to crush potential competitors is still hugely important. The net neutrality bills discussed in Congress last month would have completely negated the Commission’s Section 706 authority, preventing it from overturning anti-community broadband laws. If the proposed legislation’s loophole-ridden net neutrality “protections” weren’t reason enough to oppose the bill, its attempt to protect ISP monopolies by preventing the FCC from addressing anti-competitive muni broadband laws surely is.
The FCC is scheduled to vote on the order at the end of the month, and while the proposal is targeted to only two states, it sends a clear message that the FCC will do what it takes to promote competition in broadband markets. Working to ensure that broadband markets feature multiple competitive providers is a daunting task, but Chairman Wheeler’s plan to preempt anti-competitive state laws banning municipal broadband is a step in the right direction.