While the FCC’s net neutrality order got most of the attention yesterday, the FCC took another major broadband-related action at its February 26 meeting. Over the strenuous objections of incumbent internet service providers (“ISPs”), trade associations for ISPs, states, the National Governor’s Association and others, the FCC on a 3-2 vote with Commissioners Pai and O’Rielly dissenting, preempted state laws in Tennessee and North Carolina which placed limitations on municipally-owned broadband networks. The FCC’s action, if upheld in the judicial review certain to follow, would allow municipalities currently prohibited by state law from expanding service to do so via federal preemption of those restrictions. Advocates of the FCC’s action argue that it will open the door to a more robust expansion of high-speed broadband service, especially in rural areas and other locations that would otherwise be underserved.
The matter began last year when the City of Wilson, North Carolina and the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga, an agency of the City of Chattanooga, Tennessee (the “EPB”) challenged state restrictions on their operations. Wilson and the EPB own and operate high-speed fiber broadband networks in their respective communities, and each claimed that it wants to expand the geographic scope of its network but is effectively blocked from doing so by state laws. Wilson and EPB asked the FCC to use its power under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to preempt those laws, arguing that they are inconsistent with the federal policy of making broadband available to all Americans.
Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act provides that the FCC “shall take immediate action to accelerate deployment of [broadband to all Americans] by removing barriers to infrastructure investment and by promoting competition in the telecommunications market.” Wilson and EPB argued that Section 706 gives the FCC the power to preempt the Tennessee and North Carolina statutes because those statutes constitute barriers to network investment and competition. Wilson and EPB were supported by a number of municipalities and municipal utilities, and organizations representing them, as well as by technology companies such as Netflix and scores of individual commenters. Those parties generally argued that encouraging municipalities such as Wilson and EPB to expand internet service to consumers is precisely the sort of competition that the FCC should be promoting, and would encourage the spread of high speed broadband to rural areas that are unserved or underserved by incumbent ISPs. Wilson, EPB and their supporters also asserted that the state laws limiting municipal broadband service were enacted at the behest of incumbent ISPs to insulate them from competition.
Incumbent ISPs and others opposing Wilson and EPB argued that municipal broadband services often fail to succeed financially, leaving taxpayers stuck with the bill, while not necessarily promoting effective competition or the rollout of broadband to unserved areas. They also argued that the FCC lacks authority to preempt state laws under Section 706 because that provision does not explicitly provide such authority. In addition, they argued that preemption would be inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s 2004 decision in Nixon vs. Missouri Municipal League, where municipalities petitioned the FCC for preemption of a Missouri law prohibiting municipalities from providing telecommunications services. At issue in Nixon was the language of Section 253 of the Communications Act of 1934 which provided that no state law could prohibit “the ability of any entity to provide … telecommunications service.” The Court held that “any entity” did not include municipalities, which are political subdivisions of the states themselves. As a result, opponents of Wilson and EPB claimed that Nixon bars the FCC from interfering with a state’s sovereignty over its municipalities by preempting the limitations the state has placed on those municipalities.
Although the text of the Order adopted at the February 26 meeting has not yet been released, from the statements made by the Chairman and commissioners at the meeting, it appears the FCC is asserting that its preemption authority empowers it only to strike down the state restrictions, or “red tape” as Chairman Wheeler referred to them, that the states of Tennessee and North Carolina had imposed on municipalities which they had otherwise authorized to provide broadband service. Proceeding from this perspective, a state could ban a municipality from providing broadband service altogether, but once it has given the municipality authority to provide broadband service, it may not impose restrictions that create barriers to network investment and competition.
It is important to note that the FCC’s Order is limited to the specific statutes in Tennessee and North Carolina, and that other state laws would have to be considered on a case-by-case basis following the filing of petitions with the FCC by municipalities in those states. However, yesterday’s action provides a strong indication of how the current FCC would likely rule in cases involving the other 17 states that have similar restrictions on municipally-provided broadband service.
One can expect at least two things to result from the FCC’s action. First, other municipalities wishing to build or expand their own broadband networks may file petitions with the FCC for preemption of laws in their states claiming that those laws restrict municipally-deployed broadband networks.
Second, the FCC’s action will almost certainly be subject to judicial challenges and stay requests by the States of Tennessee and North Carolina, as well as other parties in interest. By limiting its claimed authority under Section 706 to review restrictions imposed by states on municipal broadband service to “red tape” restrictions, without disturbing a state’s right to make the fundamental decision as to whether a municipality should be permitted to offer broadband service in the first place, the FCC is seeking to navigate a course that will make the preemption more limited and therefore easier to defend in the inevitable court challenges. Whether that will be enough for yesterday’s action to survive a trip through the courts remains to be seen.