GOP Senators Grill Wheeler on Muni Broadband Efforts

Eight Republican senators have written FCC chairman Tom Wheeler to say they are not happy with FCC efforts to encourage municipal broadband, saying that the FCC "should not be in the business of choosing winners and losers in the competitive broadband marketplace."

They pointed specifically to the FCC's decision (3-2 along party lines) to preempt state laws limiting municipal broadband, as well as funding government-owned networks through the FCC's Universal Service Fund's rural broadband experiments, and at least one FCC officials' outreach on the issue.

ISPs have long expressed concerns about preemption, including regarding government overbuilding and subsidizing networks that could fail and leave taxpayers holding the bag.

But they also talked more generally about their concern with an FCC promoting municipal overbuilds of privately owned networks. The outreach concern was apparently a reference to a YouTube video that has been circulated by critics of the FCC showing an FCC official at a conference saying states should not tell local communities what to do, although that is the gist of what Wheeler has been saying if what the states are telling them is limiting broadband buildouts and competition. The caveat is that the FCC preemption only applies to states who try to limit the expansion of already-allowed municipal networks, not state laws preventing such nets.

Wheeler has said such state laws limiting municipal broadband were backed by those private networks in an effort to discourage competition.

While they agreed that insuring broadband service to all Americans, particularly in rural areas, is vitally important, they take issue with promoting government-owned nets at the expense of private sector broadband providers who have are striving to deploy service nationwide.

They also have a states' rights issue. "We urge the FCC to proceed cautiously where its actions would impinge on the sovereignty of fundamental state decisions about economic and fiscal policy," they cautioned, branding it "callous disregard" for state sovereignty that is both inappropriate and legally suspect.

Setting a Jan. 4 deadline for the responses, the Senators want Wheeler to: put a figure on how much the FCC has committed to municipal broadband through its USF rural broadband experiments; tell them whether there are any limits on using those funds to overbuild private nets and whether the emergence of new government nets could threaten USF funding to existing private network providers; detail any plans to preempt any more state laws or adopt additional municipal broadband policies, and provide outreach plans to state or local officials.

Signing on to the letters were Sens. Deb Fischer, Ron Johnson, Marco Rubio, John Cornyn, Pat Roberts, John Barrasso, Michael Enzi and Tim Scott.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.