Feds trump states to help provide Internet to rural areas

Chris Spiers 
Chris Spiers
March 30, 2015

How do farmers get involved in the Internet of Things without the Internet?  It helps to get the FCC involved.

In a recent 3-2 vote, the Federal Communication Commission (“FCC”) decided that federal authority preempts state laws preventing public utility broadband networks from expanding to rural areas.  Prior to the ruling, large Internet Service Providers (“ISPs”) lobbied state legislatures in 22 states to pass laws that limited how far a city’s broadband service could stretch.

Why would large ISPs care if rural areas had access to the Internet?  Essentially, because it has been more economical for ISPs to block the expansion of municipal broadband by their competitors, local utilities, than to provide these areas with high-speed Internet service themselves.

But that all changed in February, when the FCC flexed its authority under the Telecommunications Act of 1996.  Under the law, the FCC can “take immediate action to accelerate deployment of [telecommunications] capability” to ensure that all Americans have access to the latest telecommunications technology.  The February ruling was in response to petitions by local utilities in Chattanooga, TN, and Wilson, NC, seeking to expand to areas outside the utility limits imposed by state laws.  Now these utilities are free to spread into areas that traditionally had little to no access to high-speed Internet.

Like running water and electricity before it, the Internet is moving from a luxury enjoyed by people in big cities to an essential part of daily life for all Americans.  Perhaps one of the most important long-term effects of the FCC’s broadband ruling will be its impact on the expansion of the Internet of Things (IoT).

More than 9 billion devices will be a part of the IoT by 2018, and many of those devices will be used in areas that previously did not have access to high-speed Internet.  For example, startup companies are using the IoT to automate agriculture operations, control pests, and conserve water.  In fact, some proponents of the IoT view it as a critical tool in fighting the global hunger crisis.

Healthcare is another industry in which the IoT and high-speed Internet will become indispensable.  In the near future, the reliability of life-saving heart monitoring devices could depend on access to the internet.  The FCC’s ruling could be an important step in ensuring that healthcare-related IoT devices are available to all Americans.

Of course, not everyone supports the FCC’s ruling on municipal broadband.  Proponents of states’ rights are concerned that it is another instance of federal authority inserting itself between states and municipalities.  In late March, Tennessee filed suit to protect its right to restrict the expansion of municipal broadband.  Now it is up to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to determine if the Telecommunications Act really does allow the FCC to preempt state laws when it comes to broadband service.