The Federal Commuications Commission released the full text of its order to pre-empt laws in Tennessee and North Carolina that restrict municipal broadband service.
The FCC voted last month to override a 1999 Tennessee law preventing municipalities from providing Internet services outside their electric service areas. The FCC also released the text of its net neutrality decision.
The FCC cites part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 in concluding “that pre-emption will remove barriers to overall broadband investment and promote overall competition in Tennessee and North Carolina.”
The federal regulatory agency maintains that its reading of the legislation is consistent with two Supreme Court cases. Specifically, it contends that the “clear statement rule” from a 1990 case does not apply in this matter because it relates to federal oversight of interstate commerce. And unlike in Nixon v. Missouri Municipal League, the question is “whether the states may dictate the manner in which interstate commerce is conducted and the nature of competition that should exist for interstate communications,” the order states.
EPB requested the decision last year. The Chattanooga utility company hopes to expand its fiber optic network into neighboring Bradley County and other areas.
EPB President Harold DePriest met with about a hundred residents at the Bradley County Courthouse last week. He told them the company could deploy fiber to many of their homes within 120 days of legal issues being resolved. Many of the residents present stated they could only access the Internet through their smartphones.
The FCC’s partisan vote has been met with opposition from conservative lawmakers in Tennessee and North Carolina. Local officials are anticipating a legal challenge from the telecommunications industry.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn and Sen. Thom Tillis filed legislation that would prevent the order from going into effect. Three state representatives asked Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery to challenge the FCC’s decision. Slatery said in a statement then he has not decided what action to take but said he was “disappointed the FCC would assert authority over a local governmental body.”
State Rep. Kevin Brooks and state Sen. Janice Bowling also filed a bill that would remove the electric service area restriction from Tennessee law. Other legislators have signed on as co-sponsors, including state Rep. Dan Howell and state Sen. Todd Gardenhire.
Similar legislation has been brought up every year for almost a decade, according to DePriest. He said in a recent interview that the legislation is garnering more support as lawmakers see how important broadband access is to their local economies.
“If we fall short this year, we’ll be back next year until we win,” DePriest said. “I grew up in rural Tennessee. There are a lot of things you give up to live out in the rural areas. But you shouldn’t have to give up basic services.”