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seattlefiber1In a setback for municipal broadband advocates, a U.S. federal court ruled today that the Federal Communications Commission cannot preempt state law to let cities expand publicly-funded Internet services.

Last year, the FCC approved an order that allowed cities in North Carolina and Tennessee to expand municipal broadband services outside their local boundaries, preempting state laws that restricted such actions. The commission said it did so to remove barriers to broadband investment and competition, citing the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

But today, an appeals court ruled that the FCC does not have the authority to circumvent those existing state laws. This makes it more difficult for cities to build and grow their own publicly-funded broadband networks.

Here’s a statement from FCC Commissioner Tom Wheeler:

“While we continue to review the decision, it appears to halt the promise of jobs, investment and opportunity that community broadband has provided in Tennessee and North Carolina. In the end, I believe the Commission’s decision to champion municipal efforts highlighted the benefits of competition and the need of communities to take their broadband futures in their own hands.”

Added Wheeler: “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 FCC’s mandate is to make sure that Americans have access to the best possible broadband. We will consider all our legal and policy options to remove barriers to broadband deployment wherever they exist so that all Americans can have access to 21st Century communications.”

Next Century Cities, a group that advocates for widespread broadband access, called today’s decision “a setback in the fight to ensure access to next-generation broadband for more Americans.”

“Today’s court decision is a blow to communities in Tennessee and North Carolina that were fighting for more accessible, affordable internet access for their residents, and will sadly prevent the expansion of each city’s broadband network to neighboring underserved communities,” Deb Socia, Executive Director of Next Century Cities, said in a statement.

Here’s a statement from former FCC commissioner Michael Copps, now a special advisor to Common Cause, a “nonpartisan, grassroots organization dedicated to upholding the core values of American democracy.”

“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,” Copps said. “These corporate providers invest in campaign contributions rather than in deploying high-quality broadband.”

In Seattle, city officials have considered a municipal network, but a 7-month study released last year showed that the project would cost $480 million to $665 million — less than past projections, but still too much for the city to take on without outside financing or a major partnership, according to officials.

Then, this past November, the Seattle City Council voted against a $5 million municipal broadband pilot program.

Looking ahead, Vox has a good rundown on what today’s ruling means for the future, particularly in regard to the upcoming presidential election.

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