States rights invoked as muni broadband grandstanding continues in Washington

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Blackburn’s not shy about extending a helping hand, particularly towards money.

States would be free to ban municipal broadband projects, under under language inserted into a bill and approved by the U.S. house of representatives (h/t to the Baller-Herbst listserv for the heads up). Since bills that get passed by the republican-controlled house seem to have a rocky time in the democrat-controlled senate (and vice versa), it’s unlikely have any practical effect. But the idea is to pre-empt FCC chairman Tom Wheeler’s (likely empty) talk about stepping in between local governments that want to get into the muni broadband business and states that want to ban it.

But regardless of its eventual fate, the most interesting thing about the bill is its sponsor, Marsha Blackburn (R – Tennessee). According to an article in the International Business Times, AT&T and Comcast alone have put more than $100,000 into her pocket, and other telecoms companies and lobbying fronts have added tens of thousands of dollars more in campaign cash.

She also represents a state that puts restrictions on publicly owned broadband systems. Tennessee doesn’t allow municipal utilities to extend broadband service outside of existing boundaries, a restriction that earlier prompted EPB, the city-owned electric company in Chattanooga (which Blackburn doesn’t represent), to threaten to file a complaint with the FCC

There are vast areas of Tennessee, surrounding EPB’s electric service territory, where citizens and businesses have little or no broadband Internet connectivity…For several years EPB has received regular requests to help some of these communities obtain critical broadband internet infrastructure. However, since 1999, while state law has allowed EPB to provide phone services outside its electric service territory, it has prohibited EPB from offering Internet and video services to any areas outside its electric service area.

Blackburn is framing the issue as a question of states rights. Regardless of any financial motives she might have, it’s a legitimate issue. Local agencies are sub-units of state governments, and there are few restrictions on a state’s discretion to delegate power. A 2004 U.S. supreme court ruling affirmed that principle, particularly in regards to muni broadband. All Blackburn might accomplish is to make a warm, fuzzy gesture toward her campaign contributors. Which might be all she intended to do in the first place.