FCC Chairman Wheeler pledges support for municipal broadband network efforts

In an address to attendees at the National Cable and Telecommunications Association’s (NCTA) The Cable Show in Los Angeles yesterday, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler expressed strong support for the right of municipalities to supply broadband services using their own networks. Wheeler pledged to “preempt” state laws that restrict the construction and operation of such networks.

In an address to attendees at the National Cable and Telecommunications Association’s (NCTA) The Cable Show in Los Angeles yesterday, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler expressed strong support for the right of municipalities to supply broadband services using their own networks. Wheeler pledged to “preempt” state laws that restrict the construction and operation of such networks.

As high-speed broadband becomes a more important aspect of residential and business life, several communities, particularly in rural areas, have become frustrated while waiting for incumbent service providers to upgrade their services. Some have decided to build their own networks, often using fiber to the home (FTTH) technology, with Lafayette, LA, Dalton, GA, and Chattanooga, TN, among the most high-profile examples.

Incumbent service providers have joined with politicians concerned about alleged government interference with business matters to create legislation in a number of states that in some way limits or hinders municipal broadband access network construction. Ars Technica has compiled a list of 20 states where such legislation has passed.

Wheeler said in his speech that he is interested in promoting competition wherever possible. “One place where it may be possible is municipally owned or authorized broadband systems,” he offered. “I understand that the experience with community broadband is mixed, that there have been both successes and failures. But if municipal governments—the same ones that granted cable franchises—want to pursue it, they shouldn’t be inhibited by state laws. 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.”

How and when Wheeler plans to follow through on this pledge – and how long the inevitable litigation such actions would create would last – remain unknown. Nevertheless, community broadband supporters hailed Wheeler’s comments.

“Communities need and want world-leading broadband -- that is clear. And they should be empowered to be in control of their bandwidth destinies,” stated Heather Burnett Gold, president of the Fiber to the Home Council (Americas). “While the private sector has undertaken the vast majority of all-fiber, ultra-high-speed bandwidth deployments, where they don't step up communities need to be able to get this essential infrastructure. We support the chairman's call for a proceeding that examines removing state restrictions that keep local municipalities from offering or contracting for competitive broadband services. We stand ready to support and work with the chairman and the commission on this critical effort.”

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