FCC begins Act II of apartment, condo broadband access drama

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The rules that govern how video, voice and Internet services are delivered to people who live in what the Federal Communications Commission calls multiple tenant environments (MTEs) are complicated. It’s a universe that includes apartments and condominiums (multiple dwelling units/MDUs), and commercial real estate, such as shopping malls or office buildings. Later this month, the FCC will consider, and likely approve, the start of a broad enquiry that could result in an update and overhaul of those regulations.

The FCC tends to prohibit exclusive deals between property owners and service providers. Tenants, including renters and those with a common ownership interest in, say, a condo or homeowners association (HOA), usually have a right to buy service from anyone, but access to a property or the wiring inside it can be restricted, or even blocked altogether. An HOA can enter into a bulk billing agreement and deliver services, at one level or another and of one kind or another, to every home, but residents are still free to buy additional service from other providers. A landlord can cut a deal with an ISP and make it difficult or impossible for a competitor to wire a building, but can’t prevent tenants from accessing wireless service.

It’s further complicated by the fact that broadband, telephone and television service have separate regulatory regimes and, consequently, different MTE access rules. Broadband, in particular, is in a grey area, since its status – common carrier or not? – is far from settled. The City and County of San Francisco stepped in and established its own open access rules for broadband service in apartments and condos, which were promptly challenged at the FCC. The initial challenge was rejected, but only because of its oddly twisted logic. The core issues of open access to services and the role of local governments in enforcing it were not addressed.

That’s about to change.