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Chairman Tom Wheeler will be stepping down as FCC Chairman as of January 20, 2017; the day President Obama leaves office. The decision is not surprising, as FCC chairmen typically leave their position when a new administration takes the helm, but Wheeler had not yet made it official. His departure emphasizes the apprehensive uncertainty that has troubled advocates of municipal networks, local telecommunications authority, and network neutrality, as well as a long list of other public policy concerns that affect our future through technology.
In a statement released on December 15, Chairman Wheeler wrote:
“Serving as FCC Chairman during this period of historic technological change has been the greatest honor of my professional life. I am deeply grateful to the President for giving me this opportunity. I am especially thankful to the talented Commission staff for their service and sacrifice during my tenure. Their achievements have contributed to a thriving communications sector, where robust investment and world-leading innovation continue to drive our economy and meaningful improvements in the lives of the American people. It has been a privilege to work with my fellow Commissioners to help protect consumers, strengthen public safety and cybersecurity, and ensure fast, fair and open networks for all Americans.”
He Proved Himself
When Tom Wheeler was appointed as 31st Chairman of the FCC in November 2013, we had our concerns. He was following Julius Genachowski, one of the worst FCC Chairs in modern history, who had been appointed in Obama's first term. He had run both cable and wireless industry trade groups, but was strongly defended by Susan Crawford and Gigi Sohn when public interest groups opposed him. He strongly surpassed our hopes for what the FCC could achieve.
A few of us from the Community Broadband Networks Initiative recently attended the BBC Community Toolkit Program & Economic Development conference in downtown Minneapolis. On the first day, Gigi Sohn, Special Counselor for External Affairs for Chairman Wheeler at the FCC received the award from the Coalition for Local Internet Choice for the Local Internet Choice National Champion. The Obama administration’s FCC, under the guidance of Chairman Wheeler and the sage advice of Gigi, has become enlightened to the positive potential of community networks.
To their credit, the agency has dealt with a number of issues, including network neutrality and a number of other consumer centric matters. We have reported on some of them, but the most central to our work has been the issue of state laws that restrict the deployment and expansion of municipal Internet networks. Gigi, as one of Chairman Wheeler’s top advisors on this matter, played a pivotal role in helping the agency pursue municipal networks as a critical aid to local control, competition, and the ultimate national goal of ubiquitous Internet access.
Gigi reflected on the court battle that reversed the FCC ruling from 2015 preempting state barriers that prevent North Carolina and Tennessee municipal utility Internet networks from serving nearby communities. She noted that advocates shared truths about community networks with data about economic development, competition, and quality of life. The benefits of local authority became clear but, unfortunately, the courts showed us that this is not a battle to be fought on the federal level. The court may have agreed with the fact that municipal networks are beneficial, but they did not believe the FCC had the authority to preempt state laws, even if they are counter-productive.
In other words, in order to obtain local Internet choice, the fight has to also be local:
“A-number one importance.”
On September 15th, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee gathered to discuss FCC oversight and telecommunications issues. Among those issues, the Committee discussed municipal networks.
Senator Cory Booker (D - NJ) asked FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to provide his thoughts on how important it is that Congress takes action. The matter he put before Wheeler was the prospect that Congress act to allow local communities to have local authority on issues relating to Internet infrastructure and advanced telecommunications capabilities. How important is it?
Wheeler’s answer: “A-number one importance.”
Wilson, Pinetops, And A Harmful State Law
Booker, who introduced a bill in 2015 to restore local authority, brought up the subject of Wilson, North Carolina, and nearby Pinetops. When the FCC rolled back restrictive state laws in 2015, Wilson’s electric utility finally had the legal authority to help their neighbors so began offering high-quality Internet access through it’s municipal Internet service, Greenlight. Earlier this summer, the Court of Appeals found in favor of the state, which challenged the FCC decision. As a result, Wilson must cut off service to Pinetops or risk losing the legal ability to serve anyone. The FCC has announced that it will not pursue further review of the decision and will focus its resources on other areas.
Booker described the situation in Pinetops as “disturbing,” but went on to praise Wilson for investing to solve the need in the region and pointing out how local businesses, including those in Pinetops, came to depend on those investments. He went on to say he was “disappointed, if not angered” by the Court of Appeal’s decision.
Watch a clip of the hearing:
It has been several weeks, but Lisa and I wanted to answer any lingering questions people may have about the results of the Sixth Circuit case reviewing the FCC's action to remove state-created barriers to municipal networks. We devoted Community Broadband Bits episode 217 to the case and aftermath. The Sixth Circuit ruled against the FCC narrowly - finding that while it had no dispute with the FCC's characterization of municipal networks as beneficial, Congress had not given the FCC the power to overrule state management of its subdivisions (cities). As we have often said, restricting local authority in this manner may be stupid, but states are allowed to do stupid things (especially when powerful companies like AT&T and Comcast urge them to). Lisa and I explore the decision and explain why we are nonetheless glad that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and Commissioners Rosenworcel and Clyburn moved on the petitions from Chattanooga and Wilson to remove state barriers to next-generation network investment. We also reference this blog post from Harold Feld, which is a well-done summary of the situation.
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Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.
Thanks to Roller Genoa for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Safe and Warm in Hunter's Arms."
This Thursday, March 17th, attorneys for the FCC and the states of Tennessee and North Carolina will present arguments to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on a case that could define parameters for publicly owned Internet networks. The proceedings begin at 9 a.m. eastern. Each side has 15 minutes to present.
As we reported a year ago, the FCC ruled that state barriers in Tennessee and North Carolina limiting expansion of publicly own networks are too restrictive and threaten the U.S. goal of expanding ubiquitous access. The FCC overruled the harmful state laws but soon after, both states filed appeals.
The cases were consolidated in the Sixth Circuit and a number of organizations, including ILSR, offered Amicus briefs. We have collected all the briefs and made them available for you here. As most of our readers will recall, the case focused on Chattanooga and Wilson, two communities that know the many benefits of publicly owned networks.
So, when you raise your glass of green beer on Thursday to celebrate St. Paddy's, send some luck to our friends in Wilson, Chattanooga, and the FCC!
In a September 9th speech to the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA), Gigi Sohn, Counselor to the Chairman at the FCC, encouraged government officials to build their own networks. She told attendees at the annual conference in San Diego:
Without question, the landscape is changing for local governments, but in a good way. Most significantly, the future is not in cable, but in broadband. Even the cable operators acknowledge this.
Rather than wait for incumbent ISPs to build the network your cities want and need, you can take control of your own broadband futures. Rather than thinking of yourselves as taxers and regulators, which has been the traditional role, you can think of yourselves as facilitators of the kind of services you’ve been begging the incumbents to provide for years.
This is incredibly exciting, and I’m sure somewhat frightening. But the new model for local governments looks to benefit their citizens through externalities, not direct revenues.
Sohn referred to networks in Sandy, Oregon, where gigabit connectivity is available for approximately $60 per month. She also mentioned the increasing role of partnerships like the one between Westminster, Maryland and Ting. Sohn commented on the changing approach at the FCC:
We are making changes of our own at the FCC to reflect the shifting broadband landscape and make sure that we seize the new opportunities and mitigate the challenges. For example, we pre-empted restrictions on community broadband in response to petitions from community broadband providers in Tennessee and North Carolina.
Read more of Sohn's speech online at the FCC website.
On April 17th, FCC Commissioners voted unanimously to expand the use of spectrum previously reserved for U.S. Army and Navy radar systems. The FCC Report and Order creates the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) which establishes rules for shared use by licensed and unlicensed users.
This is a step forward to ensuring we are getting the most use out of the spectrum - by allowing different entities to share the spectrum when it is not being used in some geographic areas for the purpose it was originally allocated for. Milo Medin of Google explained this plan at Freedom to Connect - watch his presentation here.
According to the FCC Press Release [PDF], sharing will be managed with a three-tiered approach:
In addition to the protected incumbent tier, the Report and Order authorizes two commercial tiers of use in the Citizens Broadband Radio Service. The General Authorized Access tier, which allows any user with a certified device to operate without seeking any further Commission approval, will permit low-cost entry into the band, similar to unlicensed uses. A Priority Access tier will make geographically targeted, short-term priority rights to a portion of the band available through future spectrum auctions. One or more Spectrum Access Systems, operated by private commercial entities, will facilitate coexistence among the different user tiers.
Public Knowledge applauded the decision. Senior Vice President Harold Feld:
Today’s FCC’s actions lay the groundwork for changes in the very way we use wireless, allowing different levels of interference protection and network architecture that will make the wireless world of the future as radically different as the smartphone and the WiFi hotspot are from touchtone phones and the CB radios.
New America's Michael Calabrese, Director of New America's Wireless Future Project commended the FCC and pushed for more action:
Last week, the New York Times reported that the “outpouring of thoughtful and positive comments” Comcast has received for their Time Warner Cable proposed merger is much more than it’s cracked up to be. We are shocked, shocked, to learn that organizations receiving a lot of Comcast charity are endorsing its merger plans.
After a hasty staff meeting, we decided that for a mere $250,000 we too, could see the benefits of this monopolistic mega-merger. We know they ghostwrite many of their most favorable letters, but we want to save them the trouble, by providing our own glowing endorsement.
Dear Chairman Wheeler,
After careful consideration, we wish to share our strong support for the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger. Firstly, we want to make absolutely clear that our endorsement of this union has absolutely nothing to do with $250,000 generously donated to our organization, no strings attached, by Comcast. After years critiquing their slack customer service, their perennially rising prices, and their lobbying to prevent real competition, we now think a merger between the two most hated companies in America is a way awesome idea!
We support the company’s efforts to announce gigabit speeds while charging high enough prices to ensure no one calls their bluff. We hope that the merger doesn’t distract Comcast from its efforts in Philadelphia to never pay municipal property taxes or to ensure low wage workers have no sick days in the City of Brotherly Love.
As the FCC works to update current policy to encourage ubiquitous Internet access and adoption, community networks are also taking an active role. Earlier this month, customers of iTV-3 received a boost in speed with no increase in price. iTV-3, a community minded local provider, chose to make the change in order to ensure all its customers were well within the new broadband speeds as redefined by the FCC in January 2015.
Early last year, UC2B and iTV-3 announced their new partnership. The company, which has provided services to residents and businesses to Illinois communities since 2009, is leasing UC2B infrastructure and equipment and will own any infrastructure it builds as part of expansion.
iTV-3 increased customers' speeds by 10 Mbps, according to a press release on the change:
20/20 Mbps increased to 30/30 Mbps
40/40 Mbps increased to 50/50 Mbps
50/50 Mbps increased to 60/60 Mbps
“We are increasing the speed tier of all existing Champaign and Urbana iTV-3 customers by 10 Mbps at no additional charge to ensure that every user will exceed the new FCC definition of broadband speed,” said Dinkla. “New areas will be constructed beginning this Spring, bringing gigabit Internet speeds to businesses and neighborhoods throughout the community. iTV-3 gigabit Internet is yet another reason for people to be excited to live, work, and do business in Champaign and Urbana.”
For Immediate Release: February 26, 2015
Contact: Christina DiPasquale, 202.716.1953, Christina@fitzgibbonmedia.com
BREAKING: Cable Companies Lose Big at FCC, Barriers to Community Broadband Struck Down
Two southern cities today persuaded the Federal Communications Commission to recognize their right to build their own publicly owned Internet networks where existing providers had refused to invest in modern connections. The 3-2 FCC vote removes barriers for municipal networks in Chattanooga, Tennessee and Wilson, North Carolina, to extend their high-quality Internet service to nearby areas.
Said Christopher Mitchell, Director of Community Broadband Networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance:
“Cable companies lost their bet that millions spent on lobbying to stifle competition was a wiser investment than extending high-quality Internet to our nation’s entrepreneurs, students and rural families.
“Preventing big Internet Service Providers from unfairly discriminating against content online is a victory, but allowing communities to be the owners and stewards of their own broadband networks is a watershed moment that will serve as a check against the worst abuses of the cable monopoly for decades to come.”
The FCC decision sets an historic precedent for towns working to offer municipal broadband networks in twenty states that have enacted limits or bans on local governments building, owning, or even partnering to give local businesses and residents a choice in high speed Internet access. Three-quarters of Americans currently have either no broadband or no choice of their Internet provider.