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Key Passages and Arguments From The FCC Decision to Remove Barriers to Municipal Networks in TN and NC

| Written by Rebecca Toews | No Comments | Updated on Mar 13, 2015 The content that follows was originally published on the Institute for Local Self-Reliance website at https://ilsr.org/key-passages-fcc-local-authority-decision/
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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: March 13, 2015

CONTACT: Rebecca Toews, rebecca@ILSR.org,

(612)808-0689

 

Key Passages and Arguments From The FCC Decision to Remove Barriers to Municipal Networks in TN and NC

The Federal Communications Commission has released the order that allows Chattanooga and Wilson, as well as many other cities in North Carolina and Tennessee, to build, expand, and partner for improved Internet access.

This decision is not the end of the fight. We expect appeals and petitions from other cities to be filed, which follow Chattanooga and Wilson’s lead. Because of this, we isolated some of the key arguments and passages in a tip sheet below.

While the ruling extends only to communities in Tennessee and North Carolina, it stands to benefit communities all over the nation that want to reap the benefits of high-quality Internet connections at lower costs by overturning laws that create barriers to Internet networks. In fact, the order offers many clues as to how this precedent may impact restrictions in other states.

“The FCC’s order is a tremendous step forward to enabling better Internet access in North Carolina, Tennessee, and ultimately the whole country,” said Chris Mitchell, director of Community Broadband Networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “As an organization that cares deeply about a proper balance of power, we believe this decision represents an appropriate tradeoff between local, state, and federal authority.”

 

Summarizing the Decision

The FCC has found that it has the authority to remove aspects of Tennessee and North Carolina law that limit local authority to build or expand Internet networks. In short, states retain the authority to restrict municipalities from offering service at all. However, if states allow local governments to offer services, then the FCC has the power to determine whether any limitations on how they do it are a barrier to the deployment of advanced telecommunications services per its authority in section 706 of the Telecommunications Act.

The FCC has removed a restriction in Tennessee law that prevented municipalities with fiber networks from expanding to serve their neighbors, per a petition from Chattanooga.

In North Carolina, the FCC has removed multiple aspects of a 2011 law, HB 129, that effectively outlawed municipal networks by presenting local governments with a thicket of red tape, including territorial restrictions on existing networks. The city of Wilson had petitioned the FCC for this intervention.

 

Key Points in the FCC Decision to Remove Barriers to Local Choice (each bullet starts with the paragraph number from the order):

Read Full FCC Decision Here

Facts Regarding Communities Around Chattanooga and Wilson

  • 43. Numerous commenters favor preemption because they wish to obtain service from EPB or Wilson but are unable to do so, and the maps and data discussed above illustrate that communities surrounding EPB’s and Wilson’s current areas of broadband service have far fewer choices for advanced telecommunications capability than the national average. This suggests that further expansion could generate improved levels of investment and competition in these locations. (pp 23-24)

  • See charts on pages 15 and 16, 21 and 22 showing areas around Wilson and Chattanooga lag national average on Internet access for both basic and advanced services.

Characterizing the North Carolina Barriers to Municipal Networks

  • 3. In North Carolina, the restriction takes the form of a series of costly hoops through which a service provider must jump.  Although characterized as intended to “level the playing field” with private providers when passed, it is clear that the combination of requirements effectively raises the cost of market entry so high as to effectively block entry and protect the private providers that advocated for such legislation from competition.  (p. 4)

  • 14. We also find that North Carolina’s H.B. 129 falls within our authority to preempt under section 706.  H.B. 129 does not prohibit service by municipal entities — indeed it explicitly permits service. (p. 6)

  • 113. Taken together, these purported “level playing field” provisions single out communications services for asymmetric regulatory burdens that function as barriers to and have the effect of increasing the expense of and causing delay in broadband deployment and infrastructure investment. (p. 51)

  • 62. However, even if we focus on taxpayer protection, as some request, the evidence before us suggests that the Tennessee and North Carolina laws before us actually increase the likelihood of failure because of the barriers that they erect to the successful deployment of broadband infrastructure (p.31)

  • 98. … Indeed, the North Carolina Department of State Treasurer Local Government Commission recognized this in the legislative history of H.B. 129 when it noted that “the boundaries set forth in the PCS weaken the financial viability of [the Greenlight and Fibrant] broadband systems.” (p.45)

  • 103. We therefore find that the exemption for “unserved” areas contained in 160A-340.2(b), is not consistent with our analysis of marketplace realities–both with respect to when H.B.129 was enacted, and especially with respect to our recent findings in the 2015 Broadband Progress Report reflecting evolving technology and consumer expectations. Under H.B.129, an area qualifies as “unserved” if at least 50 percent of the households do not have access to service at download speeds of at least 768 kbps while, in sharp contrast, under the Commission’s current benchmark companies receiving Connect America funding for fixed broadband must serve consumers with speeds of at least 10 Mbps for downloads and 1 Mbps for uploads;and areas are “unserved” by advanced telecommunications capability if they do not have access to service with speeds of at least 25 Mbps / 3 Mbps. As a result of the significantly lower speed thresholds adopted in H.B.129 compared to any of the above standards, very few areas in North Carolina will qualify as “unserved” despite the fact that many areas do not meet the standards articulated above. Given that Congress has directed us to carefully evaluate broadband deployment in our role as the regulator of interstate communications by wire, we find that our speed thresholds are the appropriate metric by which to evaluate whether an area is “unserved,” not the standard contained in H.B.129. (p.47)

Characterizing the Tennessee Barrier to Municipal Networks

  • 13. The territorial restriction in Tennessee Code Section 601 serves only to restrict municipal electric providers from providing broadband service on fiber networks that they are already authorized to build statewide…  It serves only to effectuate state communications policy preferences by enforcing inefficiency and protecting incumbents from competition. (p.6)

  • 62. However, even if we focus on taxpayer protection, as some request, the evidence before us suggests that the Tennessee and North Carolina laws before us actually increase the likelihood of failure because of the barriers that they erect to the successful deployment of broadband infrastructure. (p.31)

 

Municipal Networks Improve Internet Access Services and Competition

  • Footnote 139: We note that EPB vastly increased the broadband speeds available to those within its service territory while generating revenue from its broadband service without cross-subsidization from its electrical service, indicating that there was substantial unmet demand.  (p.25)

  • 47. … In other cases, even in the absence of market failure, communities may find that meeting additional unmet demand for broadband serves important policy priorities.  For instance, the municipal provider may have both the incentive and means to serve those broadband needs that are so widely dispersed in the community they would not show up on the balance sheet of any private firm. (p.25)

Relevant to Barriers in Other States

  • 16. While the present Memorandum Opinion and Order (Order) only addresses the EPB and Wilson Petitions, the Commission will not hesitate to preempt similar statutory provisions in factual situations where they function as barriers to broadband investment and competition. (p.6)

  • 60.   Some commenters argue that municipal entry distorts the marketplace because the municipality functions as both regulator and competitor and could use its authority anti-competitively. This argument fails because these commenters are unable to identify any compelling evidence that this is an actual problem in Tennessee or North Carolina (or elsewhere). (p.31)

  • 62. However, even if we focus on taxpayer protection, as some request, the evidence before us suggests that the Tennessee and North Carolina laws before us actually increase the likelihood of failure because of the barriers that they erect to the successful deployment of broadband infrastructure (p.31)

  • [Regarding potential barriers to telcom-related services that may not solely be Internet access] – 79. … that “a provider’s ability to offer video service and to deploy broadband networks are linked intrinsically… We recognize that providers may not always have a business case for building a network unless they can optimize revenue by bundling multiple services. (p.39)

  • Footnote 329: As discussed above with reference to EPB and Tennessee, the restrictions on the provision of bundled services undermines a provider’s ability to provide broadband successfully due to the strong customer preference for bundled offerings (p.53)

 

Regarding FCC Authority to Preempt State Laws:

  • 146. To put it plainly, section 706 authorizes the Commission to displace state laws that effectuate choices about the substance of communications policy that conflict with federal communications policy designed to ensure “reasonable and timely” deployment of broadband. (p.62)

  • 141. … Before addressing whether section 706 authorizes preemptions of laws regulating municipalities as broadband providers, we first address whether it authorizes preemption under any circumstances; for example, whether it would reach state laws that regulate broadband provision by purely private entities.  Take, as an illustration, a hypothetical state law that prohibited cable-based broadband providers from offering broadband capacity greater than that offered by wireless broadband providers.  We think that the answer in that instance would be clear. Such a law would prevent cable-based broadband providers from competing based on superior bandwidth, which in turn could cause such providers to conclude that they could not make an economic case for increasing the capacity of their network in certain communities. (p.59)

  • 143. … And section 706(b) uses at least equally urgent language, requiring us to continually reappraise deployment, and mandating that we “shall take immediate action” when necessary by “removing barriers to infrastructure investment and by promoting competition in the telecommunications market. (p.60)

  • 11. We find that section 706 authorizes the Commission to preempt state laws that specifically regulate the provision of broadband by the state’s political subdivision, where those laws stand as barriers to broadband investment and competition.  A different question would be presented were we asked to preempt state laws that withhold authority to provide broadband altogether.  But where a state has authorized municipalities to provide broadband, and then chooses to impose regulations on that municipal provider in order to effectuate the state’s preferred communications policy objectives, such as the protection of incumbent ISPs, such laws fall within our authority to preempt.  (p. 5)

  • 147. But where a state has authorized municipalities to provide broadband, and then chooses to impose regulations on that municipal provider in order to effectuate the state’s preferred communications policy objectives, we find that such laws fall within our authority to preempt.  To take an example, where a state allows political subdivisions to provide broadband, but then imposes regulations to “level the playing field” by creating obligations apparently intended to mirror those borne by private providers, it does so in order to further its own policy goals about optimal competitive and investment conditions in the broadband marketplace.  The states here are deciding that incumbent broadband providers require protection from what they regard as unfair competition and regulating to restrict that competition.  This steps into the federal role in regulating interstate communications.  Where those laws conflict with federal communications policy and regulation, they may be preempted.  We thus interpret sections 706(a) and 706(b) to give us authority to preempt state laws that regulate the provision of broadband by political subdivisions, provided that the law in question serves to effect communications policy and would frustrate broadband deployment “on a reasonable and timely basis . . . to all Americans.” (p.62)

  • 148. .  Such a law is focused solely on policy preferences, and not core state control of political subdivisions.  In short, a state law that effectuates a policy preference regarding the provision of broadband is not shielded from all scrutiny simply because it is cast in terms that affect only municipal providers. (p.63)

  • 12. And unlike Nixon v. Missouri Municipal League, the question here is not whether the municipal systems can provide broadband at all, but rather whether the states may dictate the manner in which interstate commerce is conducted and the nature of competition that should exist for interstate communications. (p.5)

  • 167. Once the state has granted that power, however, we do not believe a state is free to advance its own policy objectives when they run counter to federal policy regarding interstate communications. (p.70)

Within North Carolina, the John Locke Foundation has been a persistent critic of local government efforts to encourage competition against the cable and telephone company incumbent providers. It has made many claims in its effort to ensure communities have no power to build their own networks or to use their assets to partner with independent entities for superior Internet access. The FCC saw fit to directly respond to some of these claims.

 

John Locke Foundation Has Misrepresented How Municipal Networks are Funded

  • 69. Morganton and Salisbury, North Carolina.  The John Locke Foundation (JLF) describes the cities of Morganton and Salisbury as examples of municipal broadband that “delivers harm, not help, to the competitive environment” in North Carolina. With respect to the “CoMPAS” (City of Morganton Public Antenna System) system in Morganton, JLF asserts that such harm to the community is evident in two actions by the city council.  The first harmful action, JLF claims, was the council’s decision to allow CoMPAS to borrow funds from two municipal funds. The same report on which JLF relies also states, however, that CoMPAS no longer operates at a loss and its loan repayments to those two funds will be complete in fiscal year 2014. Based on all the information in the report, there does not appear to be any evidence of harm to the community from the municipality’s decision to temporarily borrow money from two of its own reserve funds.  JLF’s second example of purported harm is the alleged cross-subsidization of CoMPAS cable rates by increases in taxes and electricity rates.  Significantly, the news report cited by JLF does not claim that any cross-subsidization actually occurred.  On the contrary, it reports that Morganton’s City Manager (a certified public accountant) said it had not occurred. (p.35)

 

Christopher Mitchell, the Director of Community Broadband Networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, advises local communities and members of the FCC on telecommunications issues and is a leading expert on community broadband networks.

For interviews around the FCC decision, please contact Rebecca Toews at 612-808-0689  or at rebecca@ILSR.org. For more on the goals met by community broadband providers, please visit: http://www.muninetworks.org/communitymap.

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