Senate Dems Float Bill To Protect Muni Broadband

WASHINGTON — Fresh off of hammering home the issue at a Senate Commerce Committee network-neutrality hearing (see Rules), Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) last week teamed up on a bill that would prevent state or local governments from limiting municipal broadband buildouts.

The draft of the Community Broadband Act states flatly that “no statute, regulation or other legal requirement of a state or local government may prohibit, or have the effect of prohibiting or substantially inhibiting, any public provider from providing telecommunications service or advanced telecommunications capability or services to any person or any public or private entity.”

Booker had telegraphed the bill in a passionate defense of so-called “muni broadband” at the hearing, but an even more prominent Democrat — President Obama — had signaled in the run-up to his State of the Union speech that those state laws were also on his hit list.

“In too many places across America, some big companies are doing everything they can to keep out competitors,” Obama said in a Cedar Falls, Iowa, speech — delivered at a city-owned broadband provider — prior to the State of the Union. “Today in 19 states, we’ve got laws on the books that stamp out competition and make it really difficult for communities to provide their own broadband the way you guys are. In some states, it is virtually impossible to create a community network like the one that you’ve got here in Cedar Falls. So today, I’m saying we’re going to change that. Enough is enough.”

Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler said he planned a February vote on petitions from Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C., to pre-empt state laws, and Booker last week said he was waiting for that decision.

Booker said the GOP-backed net-neutrality bill draft would remove the FCC’s ability to lift those barriers.

In a Republican-controlled Senate and House, the odds of Booker’s bill passing are long, but Booker had one high-profile ally in Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). “This legislation will support the ability of cities to decide for themselves whether or not they would like to build their own broadband networks and provide community members with high-speed Internet service,” Markey said of the bill. “I thank Senator Booker for his leadership introducing the Community Broadband Act, which will support more options in the broadband market and greater local choice.”

Markey also called on the FCC to get moving on flexing its own pre-emption powers. Wheeler has said he thinks the FCC has the authority to pre-empt local laws and he shares the president’s view that the bills are the work of ISPs trying to foreclose competition.

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.