Chairman Tom Wheeler, of the Federal Communications Commission, has hinted that the agency might be interested in increasing Internet broadband competition by stopping local and state laws, often imposed with pressure by big incumbent Internet service providers, that outlaw municipal broadband. 

Wheeler wrote an official FCC blog post to that effect last week, the second of two recent moves that complicate the picture of what industries and companies Wheeler is sympathetic to. (The other was Wheeler's promise to look into the Netflix vs. Verizon/Comcast peering spat.) This comes as Wheeler and the FCC are considering new ISP governing rules that would likely cut the legs out from under the longstanding principle of net neutrality.

Wheeler's blog post argued in favor of community and municipal broadband, as he played up his recent visit to the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee -- which, as we've mentioned before, is one of the few places in America known for its outstanding local utility-provided gigabit fiber broadband.

"Chattanooga's investment in community broadband has not only helped ensure that all its citizens have Internet access, it's made this mid-size city in the Tennessee Valley a hub for the high-tech jobs people usually associate with Silicon Valley. That's because Chattanooga's networks deliver gigabit-per-second speeds, removing bandwidth as a constraint on innovation. Businesses have responded. Amazon has cited Chattanooga's world-leading networks as a reason for locating a distribution center in the area, as has Volkswagen when it chose Chattanooga as its headquarters for North American manufacturing."

Wheeler said he supports local community broadband, and he reiterated his promise to support such efforts by pre-empting state laws that ban or restrict local public broadband initiatives. "If the people, acting through their elected local governments, want to pursue competitive community broadband, they shouldn't be stopped by state laws promoted by cable and telephone companies that don't want that competition," wrote Wheeler. "I believe that it is in the best interests of consumers and competition that the FCC exercises its power to preempt state laws that ban or restrict competition from community broadband. Given the opportunity, we will do so."

That's the closest thing to a promise from a bureaucrat to fight for local public broadband and against big teleco-influenced state laws that limit community high-speed Internet initiatives in as many as 20 states. And it shows net neutrality advocates that Tom Wheeler, the former cable company lobbyist, isn't exactly the Darth Vader to Comcast's Emperor Palpatine, to put a complex Internet policy controversy in the nerdiest terms possible.

One thing is for sure: Wheeler, in his own complicated (and possibly disastrous) way, puts innovation and competition at the forefront of his policy initiatives:

"The facts speak for themselves: competition works - when it is allowed to. Throughout the country where we have seen competitive broadband providers come in to a market, prices have gone down and broadband speeds have gone up. No wonder incumbent broadband providers want to legislate rather than innovate.

"Removing restrictions on community broadband can expand high-speed Internet access in underserved areas, spurring economic growth and improvements in government services, while enhancing competition. Giving the citizens of Chattanooga and leaders like Mayor Berke the power to make these decisions for themselves is not only the right thing to do; it's the smart thing to do."

Wheeler has already experienced pushback to his idea from Republicans in Congress, including tea party hero and likely presidential candidate Ted Cruz, one of 11 Republican senators who wrote a letter to Wheeler (via GigaOm). The letter, which preempted Wheeler's blog post by five days, expressed Republican lawmakers' "deep concern" about Wheeler's position on municipal broadband and said the FCC would be "well-advised to respect state sovereignty."

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