Don't start the muni broadband party until FCC chair Wheeler puts it in writing

Given FCC chairman Tom Wheeler’s tap dancing on net neutrality regulations and his long pedigree as a lobbyist for cable and mobile interests, there’s good reason to carefully parse anything he says. Including what seemed to be pro-muni broadband remarks made last week at the National Cable & Telecommunications Association’s annual show in Los Angeles…

For many parts of the communications sector, there hasn’t been as much competition as consumers and innovation deserve. Given the high fixed costs and consequent scale economies, this isn’t especially surprising. But that makes it all the more important that we knock down public and private barriers to competition and avoid erecting new ones. It is equally important that we encourage competition wherever it is possible.

One place where it may be possible is municipally owned or authorized broadband systems. I understand that the experience with community broadband is mixed, that there have been both successes and failures. But if municipal governments—the same ones that granted cable franchises—want to pursue it, they shouldn’t be inhibited by state laws. I have said before, that I believe the FCC has the power – and I intend to exercise that power – to preempt state laws that ban competition from community broadband.

It’s a fine, populist message, but many states – California included – have laws that restrict or disadvantage municipal broadband projects, without completely banning them. And there’s plenty of weasel room between municipally “owned” and “authorised”.

So far, no one at the FCC has put any meat onto the bones of Wheeler’s stated intention. That’ll come during what will be a lengthy process of reviewing rules regulating telephone service. Wheeler acts like he’s the telecom industry’s lobbyist-in-chief rather than a neutral chair of a federal regulator: it’s too early to start celebrating a muni broadband victory.