Chattanooga, Tenn., officials plan to ask the federal government to allow it to expand the super-fast Internet service it offers city residents, a move that will likely unleash a torrent of lobbying and lawsuits by telecommunications companies that have spent years convincing states to curb city-run networks.
The city’s Electric Power Board, which operates a fiber-optic Internet service that competes with companies such as Comcast Corp. and Charter Communications Inc., will petition the Federal Communications Commission in the next couple of months to pre-empt the Tennessee law that prohibits the city from expanding the network, Danna Bailey, vice president of corporate communications for the EPB, told the Center for Public Integrity.
“We continue to receive requests for broadband service from nearby communities to serve them,” Bailey said. “We believe cities and counties should have the right to choose the infrastructure they need to support their economies.”
The move by Chattanooga will be a first salvo in an effort by municipalities and the FCC to reverse the laws in 20 states that ban or severely restrict local governments from offering Internet service to residents.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has said numerous times since he took over as chairman in November 2013, including in testimony before Congress, that he plans to pre-empt state laws that ban or place barriers on cities that want to build or expand broadband networks.
Wheeler asked to meet with Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke in June to discuss the city’s plans for expanding its network. Wheeler told the mayor that any pre-emption of state laws would have to come out of the public utilities that operate the networks, Berke said in a phone interview.
“I did not talk to him about the overall plan of what he is going to do,” Berke said.
A day after his meeting with Berke, Wheeler wrote in his blog, “I believe that it is in the best interests of consumers and competition that the FCC exercises its power to pre-empt state laws that ban or restrict competition from community broadband. Given the opportunity, we will do so.”
Chattanooga’s network, which covers 600 square miles and serves 60,000 customers, has received wide acclaim for attracting high-tech businesses to the area and providing residents with speeds they couldn’t purchase from the area’s private Internet and cable providers such as Comcast and Charter.
A state law passed in 1999 prohibits Chattanooga from offering service beyond the area it provides electric power.
The FCC declined to comment specifically on a possible Chattanooga filing. Mark Wigfield, an FCC spokesman, said if a petition is filed “the commission would engage in a very fact-specific, case-specific, and statute-specific inquiry.”