Republican Sens. Warn Wheeler Against 'Usurping' State Laws

Almost a dozen Republican senators say they are deeply troubled by FCC chairman Tom Wheeler's plan to preempt state laws inhibiting municipal broadband, or what they characterize as usurping states’ rights and forced taxpayer funding of broadband competition.

In a letter to Wheeler dated June 5, the Senators, including high-profile Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida (pictured) - both members of the Communications Subcommittee - referred to Wheeler's April 30 speech to the National Cable & Telecommunications Association - a group Wheeler once headed--that he believed the FCC had the power and the duty to preempt. "[I]f municipal governments — the same ones that granted cable franchises-—want to pursue it, they shouldn’t be inhibited by state laws," he said. "I have said before, that I believe the FCC has the power - and I intend to exercise that power – to preempt state laws that ban competition from community broadband."

Wheeler followed that up with a pledge to preempt in his written testimony for a May 19 oversight hearing in the House Communications Subcommittee.

Those promises did not sit well with the Republicans, who said they were deeply concerned that the FCC would "force taxpayer-funded competition against private broadband providers"--something the cable industry is also concerned about for obvious reasons.

They suggested "inserting" the FCC into economic and fiscal affairs in "such a cavalier fashion" was a states rights issue. They said the states can better protect against unnecessary spending, debt and waste than unelected bureaucrats.

Wheeler has argued that the laws are on the books because broadband providers lobbied for them to limit competition. Opponents of preemption have argued that the laws are on the books because elected representatives of the people concluded they should be, a point the senators made. "State political leaders are accountable to the voters who elected them, and the Commission would be well-advised to respect state sovereignty," they said. "The last thing the Commission should do in these trying fiscal times, with so many other important priorities, is usurp state policy with respect to municipal broadband,” they said.

Also signing on to the letter were Sens. Deb Fischer (Neb.), Ron Johnson (Wis.), Tim Scott (S.C.), Mike Enzi (Wyo.), John Barrasso (Wyo.), Pat Roberts (Kan.), Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), John Cornyn (Tex.), and Tom Coburn (Okla.).

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.