updated 08:48 pm EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
EPB asks agency to step in, overturn state law to allow service outside existing area
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) could soon have a chance to act on Chairman Tom Wheeler's promise to overturn state laws when it comes to municipal broadband networks. Today, the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga (EPB) filed a petition with the agency asking that they step over state law to allow them to expand access.
After visiting Tennessee in June, Wheeler voiced the path that the FCC must take when it came to removing barriers in the way of competition in the area of broadband. Wheeler stated that he thought it was in the best interest for competition and consumers that the FCC users its regulatory power to prevent state laws from being able to restrict the community based services. In fact, he stated that the FCC would get involved should the need arise.
"Given the opportunity, we will do so," said Wheeler.
The time has arrived for the FCC to step in, not much more than a month after Wheeler's comments. The EPB petitioned the FCC, asking that they intervene to remove "the barrier to deployment of advanced telecommunications capability posed by the territorial restriction" imposed in Tennessee state code. Currently, the EPB is allowed to offer broadband and telephones services to customers within its service range. Outside of the 600 square mile electric service area, the state restricts the board from expanding to customer requesting the service.
"Recognizing the quality and value of the Internet and video programming services that EPB provides, neighboring communities, residents and businesses located outside of EPB's electric service territory have asked EPB many times to extend Internet and video services to serve them," said the EPB.
The EPB has been fighting a broadband battle since it began gathering financing the broadband service. Both the Tennessee Cable and Telecommunications Association and Comcast filed lawsuits in 2008, but courts dismissed both cases. Comcast cut its monthly price by $10 after EPB launched in 2009, a benefit to customers from the increased competition.
Since then, Comcast has increased its prices and divided offerings into two tiers of service. While Comcast went back to the trend it established prior to the municipal service entry, the EPB turned a profit back into its electric system based on 60,000 customers. The entity finished building its network in 2011, allowing it to offer speeds of 100 or 1,000 Mbps. Comcast's service sits at 3, 25 and 105 Mbps.
The fight could turn out to be a nasty one if the FCC decides to engage. The agency is facing pressure from outside sources, including the House of Representatives and the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). The House recently passed an amendment to an appropriations bill, championed by Representative Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, which could prevent FCC funding from being used to fight state law over the issue. The NCSL threatened legal recourse against the FCC should they infringe upon the Constitutional rights of the states.
Since the petition was filed, the FCC told Ars Technica that it doesn't have a timeline for review of the petition. Chairman Wheeler issued a statement revealing that the City of Wilson in North Carolina also petitioned the FCC.