In a January decision, an appeals court ruled that the FCC had exceeded its authority by trying to impose network neutrality regulations on broadband providers. However, the court also said that the FCC would have the power to promote broadband competition in a different way: by overruling state-level bans on municipal broadband networks. Wheeler has signaled that he plans to do just that.
Municipal broadband opponents in Congress aren't happy about this. Last month, 11 Republican Senators sent Wheeler a letter warning him not to follow through with his proposal. Now the Republican-controlled House has approved an amendment from Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) that would bar the FCC from preempting state-level laws restricting municipal broadband networks.
Blackburn's amendment could mean fewer municipal broadband networks in America. The restrictions on municipal broadband that are in effect in 19 states would continue to apply. And other states would have the option to enact municipal broadband bans of their own.
As a practical matter, publicly-owned broadband is already a pretty rare phenomenon. Chattanooga, the largest city to adopt a municipal broadband network, only has 167,000 people. So most of us will continue to be limited to the same two options we've always had: the local phone company and the local cable company.
But the efforts in Chattanooga, Lafayette, and elsewhere are valuable experiments. They're teaching us a lot about how cities can best promote high-speed broadband networks. It's possible that we'll simply learn that publicly-owned broadband is a bad idea. But if one or more of these projects work out well, it could provide a model for a lot of other cities to emulate. (Of course, that's why incumbents are so opposed to them.)
Over the last decade, incumbent phone and cable companies have been fighting a war of attrition against municipal networks. Incumbents understandably don't want to face competition from publicly-owned utilities, and so they've done everything they can to slow down and trip up municipal broadband proposals.
When municipal broadband proposals are on the ballot, incumbents often spend heavily to convince voters to vote no. Cable companies have given money to defeat candidates who promote greater broadband competition. And when municipal broadband proposals are approved, an industry-backed lawsuit often follows.
One of the most important weapons in incumbents' arsenal is state laws barring municipalities from building broadband networks in the first place. The fights over these proposals have been bitter, and municipal broadband supporters have beaten back some of them. But lobbyists for cable and phone companies have convinced legislators in 19 states to enact restrictions on public-owned networks.
We rely on private companies for most of the products and services we get in a modern economy. No one thinks it's a good idea for the government to make shoes, run restaurants, or sell iPods. Shouldn't we treat internet access the same way?
This argument overlooks the fact that utilities have a much closer relationship to government than ordinary private companies. To build a broadband network, you need to either need to dig up a bunch of public streets or you need access to telephone poles located in public rights of way. You also need permission to trim trees you don't own, erect ugly utility boxes around town, risk damage to underground pipes and cables, obstruct traffic, and so forth.
So governments are always involved in the provision of basic infrastructure such as roads, sewers, electricity, and telecommunications. The question for cities is whether to provide those directly, or to grant private companies the privileges they need to do the job. This isn't so much a matter of principle as a question of which approach works better.
In practice, different types of utilities tend to be operated in different ways. Most roads are publicly owned, for example, while electric utilities are usually private. But there are some privately-operated roads and publicly-owned electric utilities. Traditionally, most internet access has been privately provided, but some municipalities have been experimenting with providing broadband service directly.
This week, the House of Representatives approved legislation from Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) that would make it harder for cities to build publicly-owned broadband networks. The proposal is a shot at Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler, who wants to remove state-level restrictions on municipal networks; Blackburn's legislation would forbid the FCC from removing those restrictions. This is the latest escalation of a long-running war between municipal broadband supporters and incumbent broadband companies that have relentlessly opposed municipal broadband proposals.
There is no body of beings more transparent, more evil, more ignorant nor more useless than the Republican majority in the House Of Representatives. They are the most responsible for perpetuating the oligarchy that has replaced our democracy.