Net neutrality ruling sinks FCC local pole ownership preemption theory

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Although a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. blessed the Federal Communication Commission’s “2018 Order” repealing network neutrality rules, the judges hearing the case overturned one section that tried to preempt any effort by state or local governments to step into the gap. If the plain language of Tuesday’s opinion is also applied to the FCC’s attempt to preempt local ownership and control of street light poles and other publicly owned assets located in the public right of way, then it’s a slam dunk bet that it’ll be overturned too.

Last year, the FCC issued two far reaching decisions preempting nearly all state and local authority over construction of broadband infrastructure, one dealing with small cell sites and the other dealing primarily with wireline projects. It claimed the authority to do so based on an expansive interpretation of federal communications law that boiled down to we’re in charge of national broadband policy, so what we say goes for everyone.

“No dice”, said the D.C. appeals court. Its opinion made two particular points: 1. congress never gave the FCC the necessary authority to occupy policy territory that legally belongs to states, and 2. if the FCC wants to exercise the authority it does have, it has to do so case by case, by the evidence…

Not only is the Commission lacking in its own statutory authority to preempt, but its effort to kick the States out of intrastate broadband regulation also overlooks the Communications Act’s vision of dual federal-state authority and cooperation in this area specifically. Even the 2018 Order itself acknowledges the States’ central role in “policing such matters as fraud, taxation, and general commercial dealings…remedying violations of a wide variety of general state laws,” and “enforcing fair business practices” — categories to which broadband regulation is inextricably connected…

We have long recognized that “whether a state regulation unavoidably conflicts with national interests is an issue incapable of resolution in the abstract,” let alone in gross…

Because a conflict-preemption analysis “involves fact-intensive inquiries,” it “mandates deferral of review until an actual preemption of a specific state regulation occurs.” Without the facts of any alleged conflict before us, we cannot begin to make a conflict-preemption assessment in this case, let alone a categorical determination that any and all forms of state regulation of intrastate broadband would inevitably conflict with the 2018 Order.

The ninth circuit federal appellate court in San Francisco is hearing the challenges to the FCC’s blanket preemption of local and state authority over right of ways and public property. It’s not obligated to follow the D.C. circuit’s opinion, but given that it has a history of being even more skeptical of federal agency supremacy than its Washington colleagues, it’s heavy odds that it will.