FCC’s muni broadband distraction shudders to a final stop

by Steve Blum • , , ,

It’s officially over: the Federal Communications Commission does not have the authority to preempt state authority over municipal broadband systems, even when it thinks the way in which that authority is wielded constitutions a barrier to infrastructure investment. The federal appeals court in Cincinnati made that decision in August, in a case brought against the FCC by Tennessee and North Carolina, and issued the final order yesterday. It was a formality that brings the case to an end. It means that no one on the losing side – principally, the FCC and the cities of Chattanooga, Tennessee and Wilson, North Carolina – challenged the decision, either by asking the appeals court to reconsider or by taking it to the supreme court.

It was apparent after the decision came down that there was little appetite for further litigation. FCC chair Tom Wheeler issued a statement that said, in effect, I wanted to make a point and I made it, and I’ll be happy to go on TV and make the point again. The City of Wilson’s response was to cut off fiber to the premise service in Pinetops, a small, neighboring community. North Carolina law prevents Wilson from offering broadband service outside of its city limits but it went ahead anyway with extending its system after the FCC’s preemption in 2015, without waiting for the appeals court’s decision.

Some on the losing side argue that the fight, first at the FCC and then in the appeals court, lays a legal foundation for future efforts and, therefor, was worthwhile. I disagree. Two years of praying for a federal deus ex machina could have been better spent on state level activism. If, say, Chattanooga had directed those resources toward changing Tennessee law, it might have turned a narrow loss at the state capitol earlier this year into a win. Instead, AT&T’s “platoon of lobbyists” carried the day. Grandstanding at the FCC grabs headlines and pads resumes, but it’s hard and anonymous work in the statehouse trenches that wins legislative battles.