The Latest in Broadband Regulation

In January, President Obama said that high-speed Internet access is now a necessity for America, rather than a luxury. He urged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to use its power to help expand broadband access, but it appears that agency couldn’t do it all on its own. To help, the president announced the creation of a new federal entity, the Broadband Opportunity Council. Co-chaired by the Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, and Secretary of Commerce, Penny Pritzker, the council will combine portions of 25 different federal agencies and departments in order to reduce red tape and friction between different cabinet-level departments. A 25-Megabit Mission This new agency will have five primary responsibilities. 1. Working closely with communities and private industry leaders to determine how the government can most efficiently promote broadband expansion. 2. Determining which existing government resources can be used to promote broadband expansion. 3. Maximizing efficiency by making sure those resources’ activities are working together to promote broadband expansion. 4. Identifying ways that the government currently stands in the way of broadband expansion. 5. Eliminating those hurdles, making it easier to promote broadband expansion. And Then… Council leadership will have 150 days to collect its findings and brief President Obama about how it will go about its charter. At that point, it will also propose specific regulations and ask for the budget to make it happen. Because the White House announcement came on March 23, that timeframe means those details should be ready sometime after August 20. Tennessee Leaders Say “Not So Fast” As the federal government creates new infrastructure to manage the spread of broadband Internet access, the FCC is facing a pair of lawsuits attempting to fight some of its recent policy changes. In February, the FCC used its power to preempt state laws prohibiting municipalities from building their own broadband networks. Before that move was even certain, we wrote about how preemption works and why many states don’t like it. It’s a fight that in at least some cases has nothing to do with the Internet, and everything to do with the scope of state and federal powers. But it’s hurting the expansion of high-speed network creation nonetheless. Tennessee is one state that’s taken issue with this preemption. State Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III filed a federal lawsuit in late March seeking to set aside the FCC ruling, saying that the federal government had “unlawfully inserted itself between the state of Tennessee and the state’s own subdivisions.” Tennessee is an important test case for preemption because Chattanooga is home to what is widely considered the model for municipal fiber networks. One Tennessee state senator had already sponsored legislation to expand Chattanooga’s network in the wake of preemption, but she has now put that bill on hold. Hope the FCC Likes Lawsuits The U.S. Telecom Association (USTelecom), a trade group consisting of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like AT&T and many smaller companies, is also suing the FCC over a slightly different issue. On the same day it preempted the aforementioned state laws, the FCC also voted in favor of net neutrality. Though many believe that ISPs want to be able to charge certain online services more to provide “fast lanes” with better speeds, USTelecom says that isn’t their goal. “The focus of our legal appeal will be on the FCC’s decision to reclassify broadband Internet access service as a public utility service,” USTelecom Senior Vice President Jon Banks said. “As our industry has said many times, we do not block or throttle traffic and FCC rules prohibiting blocking or throttling will not be the focus of our appeal.” What That Means For You In practical terms, the pair of lawsuits mean that neither net neutrality nor municipal networks in states that prevent them will happen anytime soon. As someone just outside of Chattanooga’s current gigabit-network service area, I’m a little bit bummed about that. If you’re disappointed with your current ISP, but you don’t want to wait for the courts to sort out the lawsuits, don’t. Finding a newer, better, faster plan is easier than you think. [zipfinder] Photo Credit: Free Press/Flikr

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Will Smith is a copywriter living in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His favorite word is “petrichor,” and aside from wordplay, he loves reading history, watching Dodger baseball, and racing with the Sports Car Club of America.

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