President Obama made it a point to highlight the importance of providing high-speed Internet access to all Americans in his State of the Union address last week. No one disagrees with the sentiment. The method he proposed, however — removing legislative barriers that prevent some cities and towns from creating their own Internet networks — will be a much tougher sell. Regardless, it’s the right move, and the Federal Communications Commission and Congress should both work to achieve it.
Rural areas and small towns often have trouble attracting major Internet providers who feel that the small number of customers they will gain won’t be enough to offset the costs associated with installing new Internet cables. Larger cities often are only served by one Internet company, and the lack of competition allows those companies to charge more money for inferior service. This status quo is bad for consumers everywhere. Only 51 percent of the rural population has access to the Internet at speeds of 25 megabits per second, which is generally considered the baseline for high-speed Internet. About 80 percent of Americans either do not have access to 25 megabit-per-second Internet or can only access it through one provider.
Because of these dynamics, cities and towns across America have found that operating their own Internet service is the most effective way to bring high-speed Internet to their residents at affordable prices. Unfortunately, major Internet providers like Comcast and AT&T, concerned that municipal Internet will steal their customers, have deployed armies of lobbyists in state houses across the country to throw up legal barriers to towns interested in becoming Internet providers. So far, that tactic has been working. According to a White House report released this month, 19 states have laws on their books that restrict, to greater and lesser degrees, state or municipal agencies from operating Internet networks. Many of these regulations are based on a model provided by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group notorious for drafting business-friendly legislation for lawmakers.
Many boosters of municipal broadband believe that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 gives the FCC power to override these state laws. The agency will be forced to decide whether they agree with that assessment soon. Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C., both of which operate their own municipal Internet, petitioned the Federal Communications Commission last July asking the agency to preempt state laws that prohibit the cities from expanding their services. The agency is expected to respond next month. Their decision — and the results of the lawsuits that will doubtless follow it — could settle the issue, but a positive outcome is not at all certain.
A better approach would be for Congress to settle the issue itself, by preventing states from interfering with cities and towns that want to start their own Internet services. On Jan. 22, Democratic Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, and Ed Markey of Massachusetts filed a bill that would invalidate the state laws, and prohibit states from enacting new ones. This effort will almost certainly face stiff resistance from Congressional Republicans. But this shouldn’t be a partisan issue, and it isn’t one on the local level. Red states like Georgia, Kentucky, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Utah all have successful municipal Internet programs. Politicians tempted by campaign contributions from the telecommunications lobby, or skeptical of any proposal backed by President Obama, should remember that consumer protection is an issue that voters of all stripes support.