By Fred Woods
Last week, in a landmark decision, the Federal Communication Commission ruled, in a 3-2 vote, to preempt state laws in North Carolina and Tennessee that prevent municipal broadband providers from expanding beyond their corporate limits. Earlier this year the cities of Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C., had petitioned the FCC to overturn restrictive state legislation that prevented Chattanooga’s EPB Fiberoptics and Wilson’s Greenlight from expanding beyond their current service areas.
Prior to the ruling Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller was one of 38 U.S. mayors and other elected local officials sending a joint letter to the FCC urging the favorable decision, asking FCC commissioners to recognize “… the principle(s) of local control and self-determination when considering this important issue. (The) decision will have an enormous impact on the ability of communities to develop.”
FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said the decision came down to providing high-speed internet access to unserved areas of the country where private companies have declined to provide it. Wheeler said, “What we too often lose sight of … is that these issues … have a very human face, where local leaders have their hands tied by bureaucratic state red tape. Local businesses and residents are the ones who suffer the consequences.”
While last week’s ruling only applies to North Carolina and Tennessee, the FCC could review other state requests on a case-by-case basis, or municipalities could lobby for changes in state laws. Currently Alabama law prohibits its municipalities from serving citizens outside their corporate city limits.
Nevertheless, Fuller sees the ruling as having a positive impact on Opelika, Alabama’s first GIG city. He said, “Local choice and local self-determination is critical for communities to be able to harness the opportunities afforded by true high-speed Internet. Cities have a long, successful track record of investing in infrastructure that unleashes innovation.”