Navigant Research Blog

Ubiquitous Broadband vs. States’ Rights—and What It Means for Utilities

Richelle Elberg — September 26, 2016

Ethernet CablesThe Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) net neutrality rules were upheld earlier this year, though challenges are likely to take that fight all the way to the Supreme Court. However, the Commission recently suffered a setback on another broadband-related front. In February 2015, the FCC issued an Order preempting state laws that restrict the growth of municipal broadband networks beyond their borders. But in August, the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed that Order, giving states the right to block muni broadband expansion.

The original Order came after two municipal electric utilities—EPB Chattanooga in Tennessee and the City of Wilson in North Carolina—petitioned the FCC to remove restrictive state laws that prevented them from extending their broadband network to areas outside of their utility territory. Such rules exist in some 19 US states, thanks largely to lobbying efforts on the part of incumbent telecommunications and cable providers. Given the relatively high percentage of rural areas across the country where broadband service has limited availability (or is so slow as to hardly qualify as broadband), this reversal flies in the face of the government’s ubiquitous broadband goals.

Energy Superhighway

I’ve been urging utilities to consider the provision of broadband services (via fiber-to-the-meter, 4G LTE, private licensed spectrum options, and/or, eventually, 5G) as the way to financially justify a territory-wide, high bandwidth, low latency network. Said network, dubbed the Energy Superhighway in my recent white paper, can support not only smart grid applications like smart metering and substation and distribution automation, but also smart city applications (lighting, waste, parking, etc.) as well as EV charging station networks and smart solar management. It’s future-proof, unlike the networks utilities tend to build in an ad hoc, application-centric, silo-based manner.

Many of the emerging technologies mentioned above are a long way from being widespread in most geographies. A utility’s ability to offer Triple Play (video, voice, and broadband) services—much like EPB has so successfully done in Chattanooga—supports the economic equation in the near-term while allowing the utility to aggressively plan for the more dynamic, two-way energy economy of the future.

The utilities in the suit (or the FCC) may well appeal this recent reversal, but the conflict between federal goals for broadband connectivity and states’ rights proponents is sure to drag on, to the detriment of both utilities (and other Internet of Things-centric verticals) and consumers.

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