Wheeler keeps muni broadband cards close to chest

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Muni broadband? Never heard of it.

Eight republican senators, including presidential hopeful Marco Rubio, sent a letter to Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler asking four questions about municipal broadband (h/t to the Baller Herbst list for the pointer). Or it might have been eight separate letters – doesn’t matter. Wheeler sent separately addressed but otherwise identical letters in reply.

If you take Wheeler’s letter at face value, the FCC has no plans to anything at all regarding municipal broadband. But it’s a mistake to take anything Wheeler says at face value. Parsing those words a little more carefully…

  • Muni ISPs aren’t getting any money from the FCC rural broadband experiments program, and won’t unless they jump through hoops first, such as becoming a certified (and regulated) telephone company and getting designated as an eligible telecommunications carrier for subsidy purposes. Translated into Californian, that means no FCC money for you. Cities don’t answer to the California Public Utilities Commission and are very happy to keep it that way.
  • If a muni broadband system completely overbuilt a small rural phone company, then that company would lose its subsidies. However, “that situation does not exist today”. Tomorrow, who knows?
  • The FCC’s preemption of state restrictions on muni broadband only applies to Tennessee and North Carolina, but there’s nothing stopping the FCC from extending it to other states, either on a blanket basis or state by state in response to requests.
  • The FCC is maintaining plausible deniability regarding any other muni initiatives. There are “no fiscal year 2016 outreach plans focused on municipal-owned broadband networks”, but there’s “regular contact with…public sector parties around the country”.

It’s a nominally neutral response to politically charged questions. Wheeler is leaving the gate open to two opposite paths: whip out a new initiative at a time of his choosing, or back off from previous full throated endorsements of muni broadband in an election year when lobbyists’ cash is king.

Wheeler’s letter to senator Tim Scott
Wheeler’s letters to all eight senators, if you really care