Last month, we covered the progress of U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn’s amendment to strip the FCC of its authority to restore local decision-making as its budget wormed its way through committee and into a larger appropriations bill. Her quest to keep state bans and restrictions on community networks in place (including in her home state of Tennessee, where Chattanooga EPB has filed a petition to start serving neighbors in need) is impressive for its boldness, if not its logical consistency. Impervious to many observers and commenters who noted her extensive financial support from incumbent telcos, she succeeded in passing the amendment on the House floor by a vote of 223-200.
The points raised by Representative Blackburn on the House floor in support of her amendment deserve some attention, as does the rebuttal offered by Representative Jose Serrano of New York’s 15 district, who rose against the amendment and in defense of the right of local communities to decide for themselves how to meet their broadband needs. Few of Blackburn’s arguments will surprise regular observers of the telco incumbent playbook, but there are some highlights that deserve special focus.
Rep. Blackburn based nearly her entire argument against FCC preemption on the idea that states are closer to the people than Washington, and that the FCC shouldn’t tell the local folks what to do:
“[Chairman Wheeler] wrongly assumes that Washington knows best, and forgets that the right answer doesn’t always come from the top down.”
“...Twenty states across this country have held public debates and enacted laws that limit municipal broadband to varying degrees. These state legislatures and governors have not only listened but have responded to the voices of their constituents. They are closer to the people than the Chairman of the FCC. They are accountable to their voters.”
“...State governments across the country understand, and are more attentive to the needs of the American people than unelected federal bureaucrats in Washington.”
We could not agree more, Rep. Blackburn: the right answer does not always come from the top down. Which is exactly why state legislators and incumbent lobbyists should get out of the way and allow local communities to find their own answer for affordable broadband access. In his time on the floor, Rep. Serrano raised this point as well:
"Whatever happened to localism or local control? This amendment means the Federal Government will tell every local citizen, mayor, and county council member that they may not act in their own best interests.
[Blackburn’s] amendment is an attack on the rights of individual citizens speaking through their local leader to determine if their broadband needs are being met."
Representative Blackburn also raised the specter of the “failed” UTOPIA network, and charged that the FCC would somehow force all states to do something similar:
“For example, look at the failed UTOPIA project, that has created massive disruption and is challenging taxpayers… That doesn't sound like a model the federal government needs to force against the wishes of state elected officials”
No one is “forcing” any kind of municipal broadband model on any community; under preemption each community would simply be free to choose for itself. The unfortunate state legislators who may potentially see the federal government go “against their wishes” are in fact forcing a cable and telecom monopoly model on local communities.
Rep. Serrano noted the example of Chattanooga EPB, where gigabit connections can be had by anyone for $70 per month from the municipal utility and potential customers are clamoring for service but are blocked by state law. He also rooted out the red herring of “forcing” a given model on anyone:
“Preemption will not force anyone to do anything that the municipalities alone don’t want to do. This is not about forcing states to do anything, but instead stopping states from choking grassroots competition and stopping states from blocking faster networks or new networks where none exist.
“Broadband is something that we need to expand... It should be available everywhere, and it should be available in every possible place - rural, suburban, inner city, in homes, in schools.
We have to build the infrastructure to make that happen.”
Rep. Serrano also submitted several letters into the Congressional Record in support of FCC preemption, including those submittted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the Coalition for Local Internet Choice.
As important as it is to name and shame the politicians (such as Rep. Blackburn) who act on behalf of their corporate sponsors to undermine local communities, it is equally important to give credit where it is due. In this case, a pat on the back is due to Rep. Serrano, who took time on the House floor to point out some of the more ludicrous straw man arguments used by the anti-community network crowd.
The full Congressional record of their exchange can be seen here (the relevant debate starts on page 6280). Youtube also has an edited video of Rep. Blackburn’s full floor statements from her own channel, where Rep. Serrano’s well-reasoned rebuttal is conspicuously absent.