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APPA to FCC: Cities should have the option of creating their own broadband services

From the September 5, 2014 issue of Public Power Daily

Originally published September 5, 2014

By Jeannine Anderson
News Editor
Just as many small rural communities were left in the dark by private electric companies a century ago, many smaller communities today are at risk of falling behind in the Information Age because large cable companies are not interested in serving them, the American Public Power Association (APPA) told the Federal Communications Commission on Aug. 29. "Faced with such a situation, communities should be able to opt for 'self-help' to construct their own community networks or to partner with private providers" to provide broadband to their residents and businesses, APPA said.

APPA filed the comments in response to a public notice issued by the FCC in late July calling for comment on petitions filed by two public power utilities. The petitions were filed July 24 by the Electric Power Board (EPB) of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the City of Wilson, North Carolina, both of which own and operate their own broadband services. The two cities said restrictions imposed by state law seek to "thwart or unreasonably delay broadband investment and competition." The petitions call for the FCC to use its authority under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to pre-empt the state restrictions. (See Public Power Daily, July 25.)

The FCC is now reviewing those petitions and is seeking public comment on whether it has authority to pre-empt state laws under Section 706. The commission will accept reply comments until Sept. 29.

APPA has encouraged its member utilities that provide broadband services — or that are interested in doing so — to file comments. (See Public Power Daily, Aug. 4.) 

"Given the critical and growing importance of high-speed broadband capabilities for nearly every facet of our society, and the daunting challenge of building such networks throughout the country, the question should not be whether communities should be allowed to build broadband networks, but instead, how can America afford to not let them have this choice," APPA concluded in its comments to the commission.

The Electric Power Board of Chattanooga offers ultra-high-speed Internet access, video programming, and voice services over a fiber-optic network that allows it to deliver these services to the 170,000 residential and commercial customers in its 600-square-mile electric service area, the EPB said in its petition to the FCC. However, the city is "surrounded by a digital desert in which businesses and residents are unable to access broadband Internet service or must make do with very limited speeds," the municipal utility told the commission. By filing its petition with the FCC, the utility seeks the opportunity to respond to requests for advanced telecommunication services that it receives regularly from citizens and businesses outside its electric service territory.

The city of Wilson provides electric service in six counties in Eastern North Carolina, and in one of them — Wilson County — also offers gigabit Internet access, cable television and other services over a fiber-optic communications network that is the first of its kind in North Carolina, the municipal utility told the FCC in its petition. The city said it has received numerous requests for these services from residents, government agencies, businesses, and other organizations in the other five counties, and wants to expand its broadband capabilities into neighboring communities, but Section 160A-340 of North Carolina law prohibits it from doing so.

As APPA Director of Government Relations and Counsel Desmarie Waterhouse wrote in a July 14 blog post on the association's website, more than 20 states have laws on their books that either prohibit municipalities from providing broadband service, or limit their efforts.

"As access to broadband services continues to become more and more vital to our day-to-day lives, we hope to see policies that limit barriers to entry — particularly for municipalities that are trying to provide an essential service to their citizens," Waterhouse wrote in the blog post. "The American Public Power Association will continue to urge Congress to protect the ability of public power utilities to provide these critical services to their communities." 


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