Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler, famously mocked by comedian John Oliver as the regulatory equivalent of a dingo hired as a babysitter, has endorsed using the FCC’s authority to override state laws hobbling local governments building taxpayer-funded broadband networks as an economic development strategy.
"I believe 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. Given the opportunity, we will do so,'' wrote Wheeler in a blog post about a visit to Chattanooga, Tenn.
Wheeler has denied he is a dingo.
Chattanooga, utilizing its municipal electrical utility and a combined $330 million in federal and local funds, has built a fiber optic network that provides subscribers, for a scant $70 per month, with one gigabyte speeds, 50 times faster than the national average. The ultra-fast internet has attracted a cluster of tech businesses to the one-time railroad crossroads of the South, earning Chattanooga the nickname "Gig City.''
Wheeler described Chattanooga as “both the poster child for the benefits of community broadband networks, and also a prime example of the efforts to restrict them’’ because of a Tennessee law that, Wheeler wrote, bars the city from expanding its system to neighboring communities.
At least 19 states restrict community broadband networks to some degree. "If the people, acting through their elected local governments, want to pursue competitive community broadband, they shouldn't be stopped by state laws promoted by cable and telephone companies that don’t want that competition," Wheeler wrote.
Wheeler's comments come as the FCC is taking public comment on a rewrite of its Open Internet rule. "Open internet'' is the commission's preferred term for what most call "net neutrality.''
In January, a federal court tossed out the 2010 Open Internet Order, ruling in favor of a challenge brought by Verizon. The ruling is hardly final victory for the broadband industry. In often harsh language, the court agreed with the FCC that "absent rules such as those set forth in the Open Internet Order, broadband providers represent a threat to Internet openness and could act in ways that would ultimately inhibit the speed and extent of future broadband deployment.''
The court found the FCC lacked authority to impose the Open Internet rule because it has categorized broad band providers as "information services,'' over which it has some authority, but not as "common carriers,'' such as landline telephone companies from pre-Internet times, over which is has sweeping authority. The court ordered the commission to promulgate a new Open Internet Order using its ruling in the Verizon suit for guidance.
The FCC's request for public comment on a new Open Internet rule pointedly "asks a series of detailed questions about what legal authority provides the most effective means of keeping the Internet open.'' Specifically, the public is asked to comment on whether regulation ought to continue under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act, the authority claimed for the previous rule, or Title 2, which would require categorizing broadband carriers as, essentially, public utilities.
Congressional allies of broadband carriers are adamantly opposed to reclassification. Wheeler has been emphatic that reclassifying broadband for stricter regulation is under consideration but has not publicly signaled his preference. He and two other members of the five-member commission have publicly voiced general support for net neutrality while two members favor loose regulation of broadband carriers.