Fight over federal muni broadband bill highlights preemption’s dangers

25 July 2018 by Steve Blum
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Although republicans and democrats often agree that broadband service, particularly in rural areas, needs upgrading, they can’t seem to agree on what constitutes improvement. A hearing earlier this month in Washington D.C. brought this conceptual digital divide into focus.

Silicon Vally representative Anna Eschoo (D – Santa Clara) introduced a bill in Januaryhouse resolution 4818 – that would preempt state-level restrictions on municipal broadband. It was discussed – not formally considered, just discussed – during a general broadband hearing held by a house of representatives sub-committee on communications and technology.

According to a story in The Hill by Maya Lora, Eshoo defended her bill against an attack made by the chair of the committee, representative Marsha Blackburn (R – Tennessee). She claimed Eshoo’s bill would “undo much of the progress that is being made across the country”. It’s unclear exactly what progress Blackburn was referring to, or how municipal broadband projects would undo it, but Eschoo was absolutely clear about how she saw it…

Eshoo said state legislatures are “screwing” local communities that want to invest in their own networks. She said many Americans, even those in some parts of Silicon Valley — the center of the country’s tech industry, have trouble accessing broadband.

As do residents in Blackburn’s state, particularly those who live just outside Chattanooga, Tennesse, which has a municipal fiber to the home system. It can’t expand beyond its current boundaries because Tennessee state law prohibits it. The city convinced the Obama administration’s Federal Communications Commission to preempt that law, but to no avail. A federal appeals court said congress never gave the FCC the authority to preempt state control over local governments.

Although Eshoo’s bill would solve that problem as far as many municipal broadband advocates are concerned, federal preemption is the wrong approach. It’s a double edged sword and, with republicans wielding it, it’s likely to come down on muni broadband systems, rather than on state legislatures that restrict them. It’s best not to pull it out at all.