Legal and Political Barriers to Municipal Networks in the United States

Legal and Political Barriers to Municipal Networks in the United States

Eric Null (Juris Doctorate, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-2997-4.ch003


The United States has been one of the most active countries in the deployment of municipal broadband networks. In America, many remote areas have no Internet access or are served by a single provider that might not meet local needs. Increasingly, access to the Internet is vital for social and economic development as well as prosperity. Without access, rural areas lose economic competitiveness and have lower quality of life standard of living. An attractive solution for such localities is to provide Internet access themselves, provided they believe that their area will realize significant benefits from it. However, the States’ complex legal frameworks are a significant barrier to local network success. Each state makes its own laws governing its municipalities, and states have almost unfettered ability to constrain, either by ban or by lesser restraint, the emergence of local networks. These states are further influenced by the lobbying of incumbent service providers. Moreover, judicial remedies can be used strategically by incumbents to hinder, delay, or prevent local networks from succeeding. Despite all this, local networks can be and have been successful. This chapter discusses various legal and political barriers to municipal networks and explores case studies with the goal of learning from past successes and failures.
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In 1934, the Communications Act of 1934 was passed ushering in an era where communications technology would be available to more people. Unfortunately, the law brought about monopolistic behavior from telecommunications (mainly telephone) providers by the early 1980s (Travis, 2006, pp. 1707-1710). Overall, the industry lacked effective government oversight. By 1984, this brought about the divestiture of the primary long-distance provider, AT&T, on antitrust grounds (Benjamin, 2006, pp. 723-724). In an effort to remedy the regulatory situation that culminated in AT&T’s divestiture, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was passed (mostly encompassing amendments to the 1934 Act [Benjamin, 2006, p. 1171]). It was designed to remove barriers to entry for new entrants into the telecommunications (“telecom”) industry and to encourage competition so that, according to Senator Trent Lott (R-MS), “everybody [could] compete everywhere in everything” (Petitioner’s Brief, City of Abilene v. FCC, p. 1).

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