The FCC’s other big vote: small cities await their broadband fate

The big battle over net neutrality will go to a vote on Thursday but, for many people in small cities, it’s the other item on the agenda that matters most: whether the agency will allow two towns to build their own broadband infrastructure.

“It’s a way of letting local communities control their own fate. I don’t see a difference between broadband and gas or electricity,” said Harold DePriest, who is the CEO of EBP, a city-run fiber network in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

His city, along with Wilson, North Carolina (population 49,000), will soon find out if the FCC will grant their request to pre-empt state laws that restrict municipalities’ ability to offer broadband.

Those state laws are necessary, according to their supporters, to protect taxpayers from profligate city governments. Critics claim, however, that the laws are the result of undue influence exercised in state capitals by big telecom companies seeking to preserve their monopolies.

For places like Chattanooga, a lot rides on the outcome. The town’s fiber network, which offers 100 megabyte broadband for $58 a month and a gigabyte for $70, has led Chattanooga to brand itself as the “gig city,” where companies reliant on high speed internet can set up shop. It’s also about access.

“We feel this is an issue of local control. Here in Tennessee, we have homes that live in a digital desert,” said DePriest, who added that municipalities in many places have to step in when corporations fail to build the high-speed internet that is essential for modern business, education and entertainment services.

If the agency grants the petition at Thursday’s vote, Chattanooga and Wilson will immediately be able to expand their offerings. More significantly, a vote in favor of the petitions will provide legal footing to other towns across the country that face restrictions on municipal broadband.

In the case of Chattanooga, DePriest says the state law has led the city utility to be dragged into court five times at considerable expense. He hopes Thursday’s FCC vote will put a stop to this.

“I don’t like litigation. The only ones who win are lawyers, but this is too important for small town America, it’s worth fighting for.”

The vote will take place late morning EST. The cities are expected to prevail since FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has indicated he is in favor of pre-emption. We’ll have an update on the outcome.