Friday, August 12, 2016
The Sixth Circuit ruled this week in State of Tennessee v. FCC that the Federal Communications Commission lacked statutory authority to preempt states' laws that restricted municipalities from providing broadband Internet service outside their boundaries.
The ruling means that the FCC can't require states to permit municipalities to provide service outside their boundaries, at least in the Sixth Circuit, and at least unless and until Congress specifically authorizes the FCC to preempt in the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
Because areas outside the boundaries of these particular municipalities are unserved or under-served areas, the ruling also means that certain regions outside the municipalities' boundaries will continue to go with inadequate Internet service.
The case arose when Tennessee and North Carolina implemented restrictions on municipalities' ability to provide Internet service outside their territorial boundaries. Two municipalities in those states complained to the FCC, because they saw benefits to providing service, and thus wanted to provide service, outside their boundaries. The municipalities appealed to the FCC to preempt state laws restricting broader service.
The FCC responded by finding that broader service would serve the interests of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (expanded broadband access, and all the benefits that this brings to communities), and by issuing an order preempting the portions of the state laws that prohibited municipalities from providing access beyond their boarders.
The states sued, arguing that the FCC lacked authority to preempt under the Act's preemption provision, Section 706. The court agreed.
The court said that the FCC's order ran headlong into the "Clear Statement Rule" and Nixon. Under the Clear Statement Rule, the FCC can't preempt a state action that allocates state decision-making; under Nixon v. Missouri Municipal League, that rule applies when a federal government preemption action "interpos[es] federal authority between a State and its municipal subdivisions," which, the Court said, "are created as convenient agencies for exercising such of the governmental powers of the State as may be entrusted to them in its absolute discretion." As the Sixth Circuit said,
Any attempt by the federal government to interpose itself into this state-subdivision relationship therefore must come about by a clear directive from Congress, and the FCC can only pick the decision maker here if there exists a clear statement to do so in Section 706.
According to the court, Section 706 contains no such clear statement.
So despite the Act's ambitious goals and broad delegation to the FCC to achieve those goals, the court said that the Act stops short of authorizing the FCC to preempt state laws restricting Internet access beyond a municipality's boarders.
Nothing in the ruling requires a state to adopt this kind of restriction, however, or forbids a state from specifically authorizing a municipality to expand access. But when it does--as Tennessee and North Carolina have done--the FCC cannot preempt it, at least in the Sixth Circuit, and at least unless and until Congress gives the FCC specific authorization to do so.
(The North Carolina case was in the Fourth Circuit when that court transferred it to the Sixth Circuit for consolidation with the Tennessee case.)