Three reasons to ignore the muni broadband debate at the FCC

28 July 2014 by Steve Blum
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Over the past few days, I’ve written several posts about what I characterise as FCC chairman Tom Wheeler’s muni broadband posturing. I don’t think anything good or useful will come of it. In a comment on yesterday’s post though, Christopher Mitchell, a muni broadband advocate, asked a very relevant question, which I will boil down to: so what?.

It’s a fair question. I take Robert Heinlein’s maxim as axiomatic: Certainly the game is rigged. Don’t let that stop you; if you don’t bet, you can’t win. But that doesn’t mean you have to accept every dodgy gambit – you’re still playing to win.

If you want to keep or – depending on where you are – restore local options to pursue broadband projects, consider three dangers of significant investment in Wheeler’s game…

  • Near term: the odds of winning at the state level are far better than in Washington, and time wasted there is better spent closer to home. That’s a Californian’s perspective, though. If it seems truly hopeless somewhere else, maybe you’ll conclude differently. But don’t think relying on the FCC’s lobbyist-in-chief is the easy way out. The choice is which option – state or federal – is less hopeless.
  • Middle term: Wheeler floated his muni broadband balloon as a distraction from the net neutrality proceeding. He’s driving toward an outcome that overwhelmingly favors big cable and telephone companies, and wants to divert attention by dangling the prospect of locally run networks as a counterweight. But he has no intention of usefully following through. For further reading, check out Three Card Monte.
  • Long term: adding a federal layer of rules and regulation – whether by FCC mandate or congressional action or court rulings or, mostly likely, all three – will tilt the muni broadband battle towards the side with the most lawyers and lobbyists. You won’t get anything from congress and neither the FCC nor federal courts will find a useful right to muni broadband somewhere in the penumbra of existing law.

Ignoring Wheeler’s muni broadband shuffle has its own dangers – anything that actually comes of it is likely to be harmful. But that makes it a threat which should be treated as such. It is not an opportunity.