FCC May Kill Tennessee Law Limiting City Internet Service

Republicans don't want the agency to "usurp" state power.

Job seeker Floxy Gold looks at a computer at the South Los Angeles WorkSource Center on Jan. 13, 2010 in California. (National Journal)

The Federal Communications Commission may nullify a Tennessee law that restricts the abilities of cities to build their own high-speed Internet networks.

Chattanooga, Tenn., has built a municipal broadband network to consumers' homes, but a state law is preventing the city government from expanding the service to more residents.

In a blog post Tuesday, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said broadband projects like the one in Chattanooga are bringing new competition and spurring economic growth. He argued that local governments "shouldn't be stopped by state laws promoted by cable and telephone companies that don't want that competition."

"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," he said. "Given the opportunity, we will do so."

But the move could face resistance from Republican lawmakers. Eleven GOP senators sent a letter to Wheeler last week, warning him not to "usurp" state power.

The senators, led by Deb Fischer of Nebraska and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, said it is "deeply troubling" that the FCC may "force taxpayer funded competition against broadband providers — against the wishes of states."

If the FCC tries to strike down a state law, it would likely point to Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act, which gives the agency the authority to promote the deployment of broadband. State laws that restrict municipal broadband could be in violation of that provision, according to the FCC.

Harold Feld, the senior vice president of consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, said Wheeler will probably not launch a broad initiative to attack state laws around the country. Instead, the FCC chief will probably wait for groups or individuals to file complaints about specific state laws, Feld predicted.

The blog post appears to be an "invitation" for challenges to the Tennessee law, Feld said.

He argued that cities should be allowed to build broadband networks to fuel economic development, just like they're allowed to build sports stadiums.

"We need broadband. We need competition," Feld said. "The fact is that local governments ought to have the flexibility to decide the services they need."