Tennessee is both the best and worst example of how state and local laws can prevent a city from getting ultra fast gigabit Internet, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said in a recent blog post.
In the post, Wheeler recalled a visit to Chattanooga, Tenn., which is perhaps best known to coastal tech geeks as the city that beat Google Fiber to offering a gigabit-speed Internet connection to consumers at an affordable price. The city was able to do this because it built its own high-speed Internet Service through city utilities — an option that sadly isn’t available in most other parts of Tennessee and the rest of the country.
“Tennessee is one of many states that have placed limits on the deployment of community networks,” Wheeler wrote, adding that these laws are also preventing Chattanooga from expanding its Internet service to more residents in areas close to the city. “In some of these communities, there is no available broadband service whatsoever. Commercial broadband providers can pick and choose who to serve based on whether there is an economic case for it.”
Essentially, what Wheeler is saying is that these state laws are forcing us to depend entirely on private companies like Comcast, Charter, Verizon, and others to either provide or upgrade existing networks for faster broadband speed.
I understand that, like any venture, community broadband there hasn’t always been a success. But a review of the record shows far more successes than failures. 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. 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.
Since launching its high-speed network, Chattanooga has enjoyed plenty of growth and opportunities (lots of new startups, entrepreneur organizations, and even new manufacturing jobs from big auto). It seems clear that this is a good thing for communities, yet thus far Tennessee hasn’t really lifted a finger to help its other cities gain municipal broadband. (VentureBeat has reached out to Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam for a statement about Wheeler’s comments, and we’ll update this post with any reply we receive.)
Wheeler’s stance is firmly against these kinds of state laws, but other than being an influential player in Washington D.C., he doesn’t have the authority to abolish them. And some members of Congress want to keep it that way. Recently, a group of 11 Republican senators penned a letter telling Wheeler and the FCC they would be “well-advised to respect state sovereignty,” as GigaOm points out.