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Cable Industry Declares War on Set-Top Box Compromise They Lobbied For

The cable industry prepares for war over a watered-down set-top box reform proposal many companies initially supported.

The cable industry prepares for war over a watered-down set-top box reform proposal many companies initially supported.

You can’t please cable companies any of the time.

After months of an intense lobbying effort to kill Federal Communications Commission Chairman Thomas Wheeler’s set-top box reform proposal that would have created an open standard allowing manufacturers to compete for your box needs, the cable industry has declared war on the watered-down compromise released last week that many cable operators lobbied for as a suitable alternative.

“While we appreciate that Chairman Wheeler has abandoned his discredited proposal to break apart cable and satellite services, his latest tortured approach is equally flawed,” said Comcast’s vice president of government communications Sena Fitzmaurice in a statement. “He claims that his new proposal builds on the marketplace success of apps, but in reality, it would stop the apps revolution dead in its tracks by imposing an overly complicated government licensing regime and heavy-handed regulation in a fast-moving technological space. The Chairman’s new proposal also violates the Communications Act and exceeds the FCC’s authority.”

That’s a veiled threat Comcast may take the FCC to court if they proceed with the watered down reform policy now advocated by Chairman Wheeler.

Charter Communications, newly enlarged with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks in its family, also issued a statement claiming the FCC will ruin everything:

cable-box“Enabling consumers to use apps instead of set-top boxes may be a valid goal, but the marketplace is already delivering on the goal without overreaching government intervention. The FCC’s mandate threatens to bog down with regulations and bureaucracy the entire TV app market that consumers are increasingly looking to for innovation, choice and competition.”

Sensing blood in the regulatory waters, the pile on from Congress and programmers that depend on their relationships with large cable operators was inevitable and quick:

The top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee said Monday that he is doubtful.



“While I commend Chairman Wheeler for working to solve this difficult issue, I’m concerned that this latest proposal will not work, particularly when it comes to licensing,” Rep. Frank Pallone (N.J.) said in a statement. “Ultimately, I’m skeptical that the revised plan will benefit consumers.”

Fido Cable Leases Access from Current Cable Providers, Charges More Than They Do

(PRNewsFoto/Fido Cable)

(PRNewsFoto/Fido Cable)

You may soon have a choice of cable companies, but don’t expect any savings doing business with the competition.

South Carolina-based Sky Play, LLC has launched a new cable service it claims is available across the U.S., offering competitive broadband and later phone and television service.

The service, known as Fido Cable, is dependent on leasing access from cable companies including Cablevision-Altice, Charter-Bright House-Time Warner Cable, Cable One, Comcast, and Cox as well as telephone company AT&T.

“We believe that people deserve to select which internet company they would like to utilize as opposed to being stuck with one or two options of service from companies who constantly raise their rates and offer no thought of the customer they service,” said David Wheeler, vice president of Sky Play. “Fido Cable is available to everyone in every major city and surrounding cities throughout the U.S.”

The company’s claims about the aspirations of American cable subscribers may be true but after Stop the Cap! called the company and obtained price quotes, it is clear any savings doing business with Fido Cable are illusory at best. Fido has a single page website that needs work, including correcting “Cable Vision,” when it actually meant “Cablevision.” Details about service and pricing was scant, so we called the company to get prices for two large cable operators: Time Warner Cable and Charter.

The company claims it offers internet access today and will be offering voice services across its national footprint and television in “select cities.” For purposes of obtaining pricing information, we quickly learned our home city of Rochester, N.Y., is not select enough for Fido Cable.

charter twcFido Cable (which has no relationship with the Canadian prepaid mobile provider “Fido,” owned by Rogers Communications), says internet and voice plans start at $39.99 a month, but not for TWC or Charter customers.

In fact, Fido does not seem to offer any new customer promotional pricing. Their quoted rates were consistently higher than their cable company hosts charge their own customers. No wonder cable operators allowing Fido to compete using their systems are not breaking any sweat over the “competition.”

For instance, Fido charges a $120 installation and $15 modem fee for both Time Warner Cable and Charter customers. The representative claimed the modem fee was a one-time charge and customers were allowed to supply their own equipment. In comparison, both Charter and Time Warner Cable agreed to waive any installation fees for new customers. Time Warner Cable charges a $10 monthly modem rental fee and Charter includes the modem in the price of its service.

Fido Cable charges $65 a month for 15/1Mbps service. Time Warner Cable’s equivalent plan costs $59.99 a month for the service and modem rental (deduct $10 a month from TWC’s price if you buy your own modem). A 50Mbps plan from Fido costs $120 a month, but it’s $119 a month from Time Warner Cable (again, deduct $10 if you supply your own modem).

For Charter customers, a 60/4Mbps plan is priced $59.99 direct from Charter, but if you choose Fido Cable you will pay $5 more a month: $65. A 100/7Mbps plan from Charter is priced at $99.99, or you can pay Fido $105.

Here are more details about Fido internet plans we obtained today:

Time Warner Cable Service Areas

  • 10/1Mbps: $55
  • 15/1Mbps: $65
  • 50/5Mbps: $120

Charter Cable Service Areas

  • 60/4Mbps: $65
  • 80/5Mbps: $99
  • 100/7Mbps: $105

A 2-year price guarantee applies to all pricing.

Our Take: Frontier to Bring Vantage TV to Metro Rochester, N.Y.

frontier new logoWith more than one million people in its footprint across western New York, Frontier Communications has the potential of picking up a significant number of new customers and keeping others from leaving with the introduction of its Vantage IPTV service (see our coverage from this spring to learn more about Vantage TV), set to arrive in the Greater Rochester area by the end of this year.

Rochester is Frontier’s largest legacy copper service area by population, encompassing the majority of the 585 area code. Yet for all that history and Rochester’s significant population base, over the last 15 years Frontier has owned the former Rochester Telephone, upgrades to its copper wire infrastructure have been modest. Significant segments of Frontier’s service area in Rochester still cannot support greater than 3-6Mbps DSL because the company has proportionally underinvested in network upgrades.

That underinvestment has allowed Time Warner Cable (now Charter) to amass a large majority of the residential broadband, phone, and television market in the region. Winning those customers back may be tough without considerable investment in ridding the Rochester area of large segments of copper wiring in place since the 1960s and 1970s. Frontier will be competing against a company that offers broadband speeds starting at 60Mbps and will be discounting its plans, packages and equipment fees for the next few years.

opinionVantage TV is powered by Frontier’s broadband service and will need more bandwidth than the company can now supply across parts of the three dozen communities it plans to market IPTV in the Greater Rochester area. CEO Dan McCarthy promised to upgrade much of Frontier’s copper network to support speeds of 50Mbps or higher, but that isn’t likely to happen this year in large parts of western New York.

Historically, Frontier has preferred acquiring other companies’ already-built fiber and fiber/copper networks instead of spending the money to build comparable networks from scratch. That is why there is a wide disparity between Frontier’s performance in its acquired FiOS and U-verse territories (Indiana, Pacific Northwest, and Connecticut) and its legacy network (Rochester) and acquired dilapidated copper communities (non-FiOS Verizon acquisition areas, most of West Virginia, etc.)

The Vantage TV announcement underwhelmed local media, with only one television station bothering to cover it. That may be a result of skepticism among area reporters who have had direct past experience using Frontier’s DSL service and share our attitude about Frontier’s press releases: only believe it when you actually see it.

CenturyLink to Minnesota: Deregulate Us Because We Said So

centurylinkAn attempt by CenturyLink to win near-complete deregulation for all of its 108 telephone exchanges in Minnesota has been met with strong objections from the Department of Commerce and the Minnesota Attorney General’s office because CenturyLink couldn’t be bothered to provide enough information to prove its case.

“In essence, a carrier filing a petition [for deregulation must] ‘show its work’ in the initial filing in order to have a complete petition for review,” wrote the Attorney General’s office. “CenturyLink has not shown its work. As a result, any analysis of the merits of the petition is both premature and impossible, given the lack of detail provided in the petition. The filing of the superficial results of analyses performed by the company with no supporting data or workpapers does not allow for any analysis necessary on the merits of the petition. This leaves the commission with a take-it-or-leave-it approach and shuts out other parties’ ability to perform analysis of the petition using the same data set relied upon by the company. Such scant data would not be allowed in any other commission proceeding.”

The two state agencies, in addition to some public interest groups, object to CenturyLink’s claim that since they now serve fewer than 50% of households and competing services are available to at least 60% of customers in each of their exchanges, they should no longer be regulated.

But unlike many other states, Minnesota law requires the burden of proof be met by CenturyLink, and in this case that requires a clear record of evidence of customer losses as a result of direct competition, according to the state agencies.

centurylink mn

The Attorney General’s office believes CenturyLink used proprietary data and other unexplained criteria difficult to impossible for independent third parties to verify. The Attorney General complained, “parties must take CenturyLink at its word that its analysis is accurate.”

One requirement mandates that phone companies seeking regulatory relief provide a list of local services offered in each exchange, to verify if competitors are providing a comparable level of service. CenturyLink admitted it winged it, never submitting an actual list of local services but instead a link to its national website.

When asked why the company omitted the list, a company representative told the Office of the Attorney General they didn’t think it was important.

Other examples:

  • CenturyLink’s list of exchange areas was developed using proprietary data using an “allocation tool” that requires everyone involved in the case to take CenturyLink at its word the analysis is accurate and complete;
  • CenturyLink was required to prove how many competitive providers were available to customers in each exchange. CenturyLink took a short cut, supplying a list of “major” wireless providers and cable companies alleged to be supplying service in the area with no verification or data source to generate the list. For proof of coverage, CenturyLink took screen shots of wireless provider coverage maps used in marketing material, with no proof customers actually get adequate coverage in those areas.
  • CenturyLink footnoted in tiny print it was beginning to offer unregulated Voice over IP phone service, but had no customers as of Dec. 31, 2015. It did not say anything about its plans for 2016. Should CenturyLink launch VoIP, they will be able to offer unregulated phone service in Minnesota and elsewhere, possibly negating the need to ask for deregulation.

Earlier this week, CenturyLink filed its response, effectively telling regulators they cannot dismiss the company’s petition based on the complaints from the two state agencies.

“The agencies’ arguments misread the relevant statute, confuse the distinction between completeness and sufficiency, and should be summarily rejected,” CenturyLink argued. “The statute clearly does not contemplate that all issues … must be unequivocally resolved before a petition is deemed complete. If that were the case, there would be no need for the 180 day review period.”

The proceeding is still ongoing, although it was originally supposed to take a maximum of six months.

FCC Surrenders on Municipal Broadband; Won’t Appeal Pre-Emption Loss to Supreme Court

Slow-Road-Sign-378pxCommunity broadband advocates will have to redouble their efforts to overturn state laws that restrict or prohibit municipal broadband, because the Federal Communications Commission today signaled it will no longer be a part of that fight.

The federal regulator chaired by Thomas Wheeler sought to preempt state laws that restrict or ban publicly owned broadband networks, but municipal broadband opponents challenged the FCC in court and won in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. The judges found the FCC had exceeded its authority.

“The FCC will not seek further review of the Sixth Circuit’s decision on municipal broadband after determining that doing so would not be the best use of Commission resources,” agency spokesperson Mark Wigfield told Motherboard.

In short, the FCC will let stand that court’s decision overturning the FCC’s preemption of state laws that restrict or prohibit municipal broadband, handing a major victory to Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, and Time Warner Cable (now Charter).

“Sometimes you’ve got to know when to fold ‘em,” Harold Feld, senior vice president of Public Knowledge, told Motherboard. “This case was always something of a long-shot, but now it’s too much of a long-shot to put money on.”

The decision not to appeal will require broadband advocates to battle in each impacted state to overturn the restrictive laws, which could be a long and arduous process. The alternative is voting in a majority of Democrats to the U.S. House and Senate. Democratic Sen. Cory Booker (NJ) introduced the “Community Broadband Act” — legislation to end anti-broadband state laws. Critics of the laws contend they are often written and lobbied for by incumbent telecom companies that don’t want competition. But the legislation has no chance of passage as long as Republicans maintain their House and Senate majority.

Hulu’s Money Blowout: Analyst Predicts Forthcoming Live TV Service Will Lose Real $$$

huluTM_355Hulu’s still-to-be-announced live TV streaming service designed to give subscribers an alternative to bloated and expensive cable-TV packages will lose “real money” if it is priced at around $40.

BTIG Reseach analyst Brandon Ross’ research note to investors (reported by Fierce Cable) claims Hulu faces big expenses to include sports and CBS programming — the one network that isn’t a part-owner of Hulu — into its forthcoming package of live and on-demand programming. With most sources claiming Hulu intends to price the service starting at prices as low as $35-40 a month for a slimmed down package of cable television and over-the-air stations viewable on one device and $50 a month for those wanting to watch on multiple devices, Ross predicts the service will rapidly run into the red because of programming costs.

Hulu’s live streaming service could be a real game changer for online cable TV alternatives, because it is expected to contain a robust assortment of popular cable networks and regional sports channels that could appeal to a wider marketplace than even slimmer packages from Sling TV.

Video margins are dropping, which means smaller operators have less to invest in broadband.

Video margins are dropping as programming costs continue to grow. Cable operators are turning to broadband to make up the difference, but virtual providers like Hulu don’t have that option.

“The ramifications of success could have an effect that goes far beyond just Hulu’s partners, from [competing cable TV providers] to cable networks to Netflix. A failed Hulu virtual [cable-TV provider] could dispel the idea of widespread competition for incumbent bundles from virtual bundled competitors,” Ross wrote in his research note. “We are skeptical that the Hulu bundle will meaningfully impact the [cable-TV] landscape from a subscriber standpoint. We simply wonder whether the price/value will be strong enough to attract customers at ~$40, with much less content than the current larger bundles.”

Ross predicted Hulu will bundle several expensive sports networks, as indicated in surveys Hulu sent to potential customers. Those surveys suggested Hulu’s service will include a variety of Regional Sports Networks from Hulu’s owners, which include Fox and Comcast-NBC. One potential exclusion is Madison Square Garden Network (MSG), a potential omission that concerned MSGN investors enough to drive the share price down after a significant spike in mid-August.

The issue of MSG could open an interesting new front in the war on cable television pricing. MSG’s viewership is focused in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut and one of the largest cable providers in the region is cost-conscious Altice USA, which took over Cablevision. Ross states MSG Network’s addition on the Hulu lineup could give Altice more leverage to force better contract renewal terms.

“For instance, Altice could theoretically tell those that want MSGN to switch their video provider to Hulu, while staying on Altice for broadband,” Ross wrote. “We do not believe this would be an ideal approach for either party, but it is possible.”

AT&T’s Cash Storm for House Speaker Paul Ryan’s 2017 Telecom Deregulation Agenda

Phillip Dampier August 18, 2016 Issues 3 Comments

fat cat attAT&T has gone over the top donating at least $70,000 to back Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, more than the company has ever donated to anyone else.

It isn’t by coincidence.

According to Communications Daily (subscription req’d), one of Ryan’s top priorities for 2017 is a possible complete rewrite of the Telecommunications Act — the nation’s most important federal law governing telecommunications regulation and the operations of the Federal Communications Commission. Ryan and many of his fellow Republicans have been critical of the FCC’s growing interest in consumer protection and industry oversight.

Ryan’s efforts to push for further deregulation and policies that could lead to further industry consolidation could generate a windfall in the billions for AT&T. Past revisions of the Act have radically transformed the telecom landscape in the United States. President Bill Clinton’s signature on the 1996 Telecommunications Act opened the door to a tsunami of cross-media ownership and radio/TV station consolidation. Provisions in the ’96 Act were promoted as bolstering competition, but critics argued consolidation was favored over competition.

Howard Zinn summarized the effects of the ’96 law in his book A People’s History of the United States: “[it] enabled the handful of corporations dominating the airwaves to expand their power further. Mergers enabled tighter control of information.” Adding to the criticism, Latin American writer Eduardo Galeano echoed: “Never have so many been held incommunicado by so few.”

In 2000 Consumers Union blasted the ’96 Act as legislative bait and switch.



“It is evident that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 has failed to produce the consumer benefits policy makers promised because competition has failed to take hold across the communications industry,” the group said. “The fundamental problem is that the huge companies that dominate the telephone and cable TV industries prefer mergers and acquisitions to competition.”

AT&T is reportedly interested in access to lawmakers to lobby for telecom reforms that will allow it to switch off its legacy copper wire phone network in rural America, force certain consumers to wireless-only landline service, get rid of Net Neutrality, allow more wireless industry consolidation, ban municipal broadband, have a louder voice on privacy and cybersecurity regulation, access to wireless spectrum, and preferably a de-fanged FCC.

Public Citizen government affairs lobbyist Craig Holman told Communications Daily AT&T’s contributions are a “fundamental way of gaining access and influence to policymakers,” as part of Washington’s “pay-to-play system.”

The only entity giving Ryan more money than AT&T was the deregulation-obsessed Koch Industries, which gave $75,000.

Ryan’s current chief of staff is a close friend to Big Telecom. David Hoppe lobbied for AT&T, USTelecom and Verizon before being hired by Ryan. Hoppe’s influence appears to be significant after Ryan introduced “A Better Way,” the GOP’s platform for what they will do if they keep control of Congress and win the White House. The plan makes it clear there is unhappiness with the FCC under the leadership of chairman Thomas Wheeler, opposition to Title II reclassification of broadband — a change that opened the door to enforcing Net Neutrality, and a belief the FCC lacks transparency and is living in the regulatory past.

Holman worries that lobbyist spending in Washington, already a problem, has become insane after Citizens United eliminated limits on campaign contributions.

“The lids have been blown off… it’s breathtaking,” Holman told the newsletter.

Meet North Carolina’s Sen. Thom Tillis (R-ALEC/Time Warner Cable)

Tillis was honored in 2011 as ALEC's "Legislator of the Year" and received an undisclosed cash reward.

Tillis was honored in 2011 as ALEC’s “Legislator of the Year” and received an undisclosed cash reward.

Back when we first became aware of Republican member of the North Carolina legislature Thom Tillis around 2010, he was hard at work building his political future just as Republicans were poised to take control of the state legislature for the first time since the days of Reconstruction. Despite running unopposed in 2010, Tillis raised more money from cable and phone companies than any other lawmaker in the state, depositing $37,000 before knowing he would be the next Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives in January 2011. To celebrate, AT&T, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon each gave Tillis $1,000 just a few weeks before the swearing-in ceremony. It was money well spent, if you were a cable or phone company doing business in North Carolina.

Tillis left the legislature in 2015 to become the junior U.S. Senator from North Carolina. The telecom industry made sure to keep the campaign contributions flowing, if only to give their thanks for Tillis’ unwavering support for their agenda. Tillis doesn’t care much for his rural constituents still waiting for something better than dial-up internet access and as long as his campaign coffers remain bulging with corporate contributions, he doesn’t think he has much to fear from the state’s voters either. After all, he survived accusations from a resigning House Finance chairman that he had a secret business relationship with Time Warner Cable.

Raleigh’s The News & Observer felt it was their duty to mention Tillis in their editorial pages anyway, taking him to task for “cheering a loss for North Carolina consumers last week after a federal appeals court upheld a cable company protection law that he supported as state House speaker in 2011.”

The newspaper is talking about North Carolina’s infamous anti-public broadband bill that was literally constructed by lobbyists working for Time Warner Cable. The law effectively made it impossible for community broadband providers to bring their much-needed service to adjacent communities that have waited more than a decade for companies like Time Warner Cable, AT&T, CenturyLink and others to offer internet access in rural and underserved parts of the state.

Tillis personally helped shepherd the corporate protection bill, designed to shield incumbent cable and phone companies from community competition, through the state legislature, supporting it every step of the way. It would become law in 2011 and rural broadband in North Carolina hasn’t gotten any better since. In fact, it’s almost stagnant. But Tillis cannot say the same thing about his campaign bank accounts, which continue to bulge with corporate donations now in excess of $11 million.

An effort by the Federal Communications Commission to pre-empt the state law failed in a federal appeals court, much to the delight of Thom Tillis, something the newspaper calls an “insult” to North Carolinians looking for a better deal.

“Today’s ruling affirms the fact that unelected bureaucrats at the FCC completely overstepped their authority by attempting to deny states like North Carolina from setting their own laws to protect hard-working taxpayers and maintain the fairness of the free market,” Tillis said in a statement. Cough, cough.

The newspaper’s response:

Translation: Time Warner and other companies, thank goodness, will retain control of the market without having to worry about towns competing with them and thus will be able to charge people whatever the market will bear.

For Tillis to say the court ruling, which should be appealed, is a triumph for taxpayers is preposterous. It’s a setback. The “free market” he backs is one free of competition from municipal broadband services that offer a better product at a lower price.

Google Fiber Puts Expansion on Hold as It Contemplates Wireless Instead

google fiberFurther expansion of Google Fiber appears to be on hold as the company contemplates moving away from fiber to the home service towards a wireless platform that could provide internet access in urban areas for less money.

The Wall Street Journal today reports Google parent Alphabet, Inc., is looking to cities to share more of the costs of building faster broadband networks or using cheaper wireless technology to reach customers instead.

Six years after Google first announced it would finance the construction of fiber to the home networks, the company has made progress in wiring just six communities, many incompletely. Progress has been hampered by infrastructure complications including pole access, permitting and zoning issues, unanticipated construction costs, and according to one Wall Street analyst, the possibility of lack of enthusiasm from potential subscribers.

Google’s recent acquisition of Webpass, a company specializing in beaming internet access over fiber-connected wireless antennas between large multi-dwelling units like apartments and condos appears to be a game-changer for Google. Webpass was designed mostly to service urban and population dense areas, not suburbs or neighborhoods of single-family dwellings. Webpass’ reliance on wireless signals that travel between buildings removes the cost and complexity of installing fiber optics, something that appears to be of great interest to Google.

Google Fiber is planning a system that would use fiber for its core network but rely on wireless antennas to connect each home to the network, according to a person familiar with the plans. Alphabet chairman Eric Schmidt said at the company’s shareholder meeting in June that wireless connections can be “cheaper than digging up your garden” to lay fiber. The only question is what kind of performance can users expect on a shared wireless network. Google’s plans reportedly do not involve 5G but something closer to fixed wireless or souped-up high-speed Wi-Fi. A web video on Webpass’ website seems to concede “you get best speeds with a wired connection.”

Even Google's wireless technology solutions provider Webpass concedes that wired broadband is faster.

Even Google’s wireless technology solutions provider Webpass concedes that wired broadband is faster.

Former Webpass CEO Charles Barr, now an Alphabet employee, argues wireless solves a lot of problems that fiber can bring to the table.

“Everyone who has done fiber to the home has given up because it costs way too much money and takes way too much time,” Barr said.

Barr’s statements are factually inaccurate, however. Fiber to the home projects continue in many cities, but if they are run by private companies, chances are those rollouts are limited to areas where a proven rate of return is likely. Large incumbent phone and cable companies are also contemplating some fiber rollouts, at least to those who can afford it. Many of the best prospects for fiber to the home service are customers in under-competitive markets where the phone company offers slow speed DSL and cable broadband speeds are inadequate. Rural communities served by co-ops are also prospects for fiber upgrades because those operations answer to their members, not investors. Community broadband projects run by local government or public utilities have also proven successful in many areas.

subBut like all publicly traded companies, Google must answer to Wall Street and their investors and some are not happy with what they see from Google Fiber. Craig Moffett from Wall Street research firm MoffettNathanson has rarely been a fan of any broadband provider other than cable operators and Google Fiber is no different.

“One can’t help but feel that all of this has the flavor of a junior science fair,” Moffett said of Google Fiber, pointing out the service has managed to attract only 53,000 cable TV customers nationwide as of December. Moffett concedes there are significantly more broadband-only customers signed up for Google, but that didn’t stop him from suggesting Google Fiber has had very little impact on increasing broadband competition across the country.

Analysts suggest Google Fiber is spending about $500 per home passed by its new fiber network. But that is a fraction of the $3,000+ per customer often spent by cable operators buying one another.

Google’s wireless deployment will likely take place in Los Angeles, Dallas, and Chicago according to people familiar with the company’s plans. Less dense cities slated for Google Fiber including San Jose and Portland, Ore., may never get any service from Google at all, but they are likely to hear something after a six month wait.

Google is also reportedly asking cities if the company can lease access on existing fiber networks. Another tactic is requesting power companies or communities build fiber networks first and then turn them over to Google to administer. The latter seems less likely, considering there are successful public broadband networks operating on their own without Google’s help.

Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Reverses FCC Rule Allowing Public Broadband Expansion

6th CircuitA federal appeals court has reversed an effort by the Federal Communications Commission to pre-empt state laws restricting municipal broadband expansion in Tennessee and North Carolina, ruling the FCC exceeded its authority by interfering with both states’ rights to define the boundaries where the community broadband networks can and cannot operate.

In a near-unanimous decision (with some minor dissent from one judge), judges from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals found the FCC exceeded their authority.

“The FCC order essentially serves to re-allocate decision-making power between the states and their municipalities,” the court ruled. “This is shown by the fact that no federal statute or FCC regulation requires the municipalities to expand or otherwise to act in contravention of the preempted state statutory provisions. This preemption by the FCC of the allocation of power between a state and its subdivisions requires at least a clear statement in the authorizing federal legislation. The FCC relies upon § 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 for the authority to preempt in this case, but that statute falls far short of such a clear statement. The preemption order must accordingly be reversed.”

In other words, the court ruled that the FCC’s belief that Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 allowed it to pre-empt state broadband laws goes too far. The judges opined Congress would have to rewrite the law to clearly state it was acceptable for the federal branch of government to overrule how a community or state decides to draw boundaries for public utilities.

EPB is the municipal utility in Chattanooga, Tenn.

EPB is the municipal utility in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The ruling will have an immediate impact on plans by municipal utility EPB in Chattanooga and city-owned provider Greenlight in Wilson, N.C., to expand service outside of their respective service areas. EPB has been working inside the Tennessee legislature to overturn or change the current broadband law but has been unsuccessful so far. Comcast and AT&T have lobbied the Tennessee legislature to keep municipal competitors from expanding, even where neither company offers service.

“Ultimately, Tennessee’s broadband gap is a problem for Tennesseans, and we need a Tennessee solution,” said David Wade, president of EPB. “We will continue to work with the growing number of state legislators and grassroots citizens interested in removing the barriers that prevent EPB and other municipal providers from serving our neighbors in surrounding areas who have little or no access to broadband. We are further encouraged by Commissioner Randy Boyd’s interest in addressing the lack of broadband in rural areas. As the head of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, he is especially well positioned to join with state lawmakers in addressing this challenge on behalf of Tennesseans.”

Greenlight announces gigabit service for Wilson, N.C.

Greenlight announces gigabit service for Wilson, N.C.

North Carolina’s law was effectively drafted by Time Warner Cable, who shepherded the bill through the Republican-controlled state legislature, making huge political campaign contributions along the way, eventually winning enough votes to see the bill become law.

The ruling is a serious blow to FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler, who made municipal broadband expansion one of his active agenda items at the FCC. Wheeler believed the two state laws were not supposed to inhibit rural broadband expansion. Critics of the laws contend they were written and lobbied for by the same incumbent cable and phone companies that could eventually face competition from public broadband networks.

“Let’s be clear: industry-backed state laws to block municipal broadband only exist because pliant legislators are listening to their Big Cable and Big Telecom paymasters,” said Michael Copps, a former FCC commissioner. “This decision does not benefit our broadband nation.”



Wheeler tacitly agreed, saying today’s decision “appears to halt the promise of jobs, investment and opportunity that community broadband has provided in Tennessee and North Carolina.”

“[Since 2015], over 50 communities have taken steps to build their own bridges across the digital divide,” Wheeler said in written comments. “The efforts of communities wanting better broadband should not be thwarted by the political power of those who, by protecting their monopoly, have failed to deliver acceptable service at an acceptable price.”

The ruling can be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the FCC has an excellent chance of getting the high court to overturn today’s decision. Rulings issued by the Sixth Circuit were reversed by the Supreme Court 24 out of the 25 times they were reviewed in the five annual terms starting in October 2008 and ending in June 2013 — the highest number of any federal appellate court during that time period.

Broadband activists can also return to the two state legislatures and urge that the broadband laws be modified or repealed. Wheeler seems ready to join the fight.

“Should states seek to repeal their anti-competitive broadband statutes, I will be happy to testify on behalf of better broadband and consumer choice,” Wheeler said. “Should states seek to limit the right of people to act for better broadband, I will be happy to testify on behalf of consumer choice.”

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  • SAL-e: "... I am paying their salary ..." No. You don't pay their salaries. The commissioners of the FCC are appointed bureaucrats by US president and appro...
  • Berfunkle: I wouldn't mind OTA 4K television. Where else are you going to get 4K content? The cable cos? LOL They don't even provide 1080P! It's a hassle and c...
  • xnappo: It is well within the FCC's charter, and since I am paying their salary I would like them to do their job :)...
  • SAL-e: I don't understand why the government needs to get involved here. The consumers are here in full power to enforce their wishes, if they chose to exerc...

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