Muni advocates need to be careful what they wish for at the FCC

27 July 2014 by Steve Blum
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If you like the idea of cities and other local agencies encouraging broadband development and deciding to go into the business themselves – as I do – then FCC chair Tom Wheeler’s talk about sweeping away state-level restrictions is sweet music to the ears.

The City of Chattanooga certainly enjoys the tune. It filed a petition with the FCC on Thursday, asking it to override a Tennessee law that prevents it from expanding its fiber-to-the-home network.

Muni broadband advocates seem to assume that Wheeler will issue an order along the lines of “states shall not restrict muni broadband”. Something clean and clear, that leaves no room for legal ambiguity or weaseling by lobbyists.

That’s a bad assumption.

Wheeler has delegated Internet policymaking – in particular, regarding network neutrality – to his fellow lobbyists former colleagues. To him, leadership is a matter of bringing the best-heeled lobbyists into a room and working out a deal that everyone can live with. Any muni broadband edict from the FCC will be vetted through that process.

The likeliest result will be a high-sounding declaration that proclaims the liberation of muni broadband while hobbling it with conditions and circumlocutions that cable and telephone company lobbyists can cheerfully exploit to stall projects, perhaps forever.

And if that proves insufficient to the needs of deep-pocketed incumbents, all they need do is go back to the FCC for another friendly conversation, as the National Conference of State Legislatures has pointed out. The messy business of arguing in front of state legislators or local officials will be gone.

As hard and as frustrating as community broadband battles are in Sacramento, local agencies and advocates can get in the fight and score victories. Once it moves inside the Beltway, we’re out of it. I’d rather be in a game we can occasionally win than one we’re locked out of from the start.