Chattanooga asks FCC for help in spreading broadband

Wilson, N.C., joins Tenn. city in asking FCC to 'pre-empt' state law banning expansion of city-offered broadband service.

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City officials in Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C., simultaneously petitioned the Federal Communications Commission Thursday to pre-empt laws in their states that ban the cities from expanding their high-speed Internet networks.

Chattanooga’s Electric Power Board, which runs its network, has received requests to expand its broadband service to nearby communities, said Danna Bailey, the board’s vice president of corporate communications.

A state law passed in 1999, however, prohibits Chattanooga from offering Internet service beyond the area where it provides electric power. North Carolina has similar restrictions.

These restrictions frustrate the intent of Congress, which is to ensure that every American has access to broadband, the Chattanooga petition said. Wilson officials argued that North Carolina’s law creates an “impermissible barrier to broadband deployment and competition.”

The cities asked the FCC to pre-empt the state laws and declare them unenforceable. 

The cities’ actions mark the first effort by municipalities to enlist the FCC in challenging a state law that restricts local governments from offering Internet service to residents. There are similar restrictions in 20 states. The Center reported on Tennessee’s plans earlier this month.

“We expect the commission to open a couple of proceedings at least, and take public comment,” said Jim Baller, the lawyer who worked with Chattanooga’s EPB and the city of Wilson.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has repeatedly said  he plans to pre-empt state laws that ban or place barriers on cities that want to build or expand broadband networks.

Sharon Curtis-Flair, spokeswoman for Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper, said she wasn’t aware of the petition.

More than 130 cities operate their own Internet networks, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Chattanooga’s network covers 600 square miles and serves 60,000 people. It has been lauded for attracting high-tech business to the area and for providing residents with Internet speeds they couldn’t purchase from private providers such as Comcast Corp. and Charter Communications Inc.

“For our city to have the economic development that we desire, we need a regional approach that means making high-speed Internet available not just in our city but across a wider area,” said Andy Berke, mayor of Chattanooga

Telecommunications companies argue it is unfair for them to compete with government, which doesn’t have to make a profit or pay taxes.

The state laws restricting municipal broadband have been backed, and sometimes written, by telecommunications companies led by AT&T Inc., Time Warner Cable Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and Comcast.

The companies are among some of the biggest contributors to state lawmakers’ campaigns and spend millions of dollars more on lobbying statehouses. AT&T has given nearly $140,000 to Tennessee lawmakers’ campaigns in the 2014 election cycle, the most for any state, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Comcast gave $76,800 during the same cycle, also surpassing totals given in any other state.