updated 06:15 pm EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Comments opened after organizations in Tennessee, North Carolina petitioned agency
After receiving petitions from the Electric Power Board (EPB) of Chattanooga, Tennessee and the City of Wilson in North Carolina, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is opening comments on the subject of preempting state laws. Based on Chairman Tom Wheeler's previous comments on municipal broadband, the FCC would get involved in the battle if it meant better serving consumers.
The petitions filed with the FCC last week ask the agency to step in and allow the two entities to expand broadband coverage outside of their existing territories. The EPB and the City of Wilson are currently restricted by state law regarding the expansion beyond the areas currently served. For the EPB, the organization is limited by Tennessee law tied to other utilities, since it serves electricity as well as telecom services.
Both organizations referred to section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 when it asked the FCC to act. The separate petitions appeared to come in on the same day, both explaining that customers outside of the currently-served areas have shown interest in gaining the services.
Wanting to follow pre-established rules, the FCC is opening up the commenting process before it takes any action on the pleas. Citizens with an opinion on the matter will have until August 29 to file a comment to the FCC, either through mail or through the FCC's website. The reply period for comments will begin September 29. Two proceedings are open for comment, with each state having its own entry.
According to Ars Technica, 20 states have rules in place that prohibit or limit municipal broadband. Chairman Wheeler has stated that it's the FCC's job to ensure equal competition, which shouldn't be limited to only private companies like Time Warner Cable or Comcast.
However, the FCC is currently in a tough spot because of Wheeler's statements, as public entities are threatening lawsuits and the House of Representatives is crafting laws to limit their power. Representative Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) helped pushed a bill through the House that would cut funding from the FCC if it decided to fight against state laws. Blackburn is a representative of Tennessee, the same state where EPB resides and which has successfully installed a municipal broadband system.