More cities call for control of their broadband destiny, as FCC looks at states’ power to overrule them

Is fast internet as important to a city as roads and waterways? Mayors from 32 cities made that case on Monday, saying gigabit-level internet speeds will be key to the future of their economy, and to improving education and health care.

The mayors, representing towns as diverse as Palo Alto, CA and Lexington, KY, announced a new coalition called Next Century Cities that aspires to remove political and economical obstacles standing in the way of faster broadband.

The announcement, which came at a co-working space in the Southern California beachfront city of Santa Monica, comes at a time when two cities — Chattanooga, Tennessee and Wilson, North Carolina — are asking the FCC to declare that the federal government has the power to pre-empt state laws that limit municipalities from building out their broadband capacity.

The calls for faster broadband are hardly controversial, since everyone wants faster internet. Instead, the issue is what tools cities can use to get it — and whether municipal broadband is a way to disrupt incumbents’ monopolies, or if it represents an over-expansion of government.

As the Center for Public Integrity reported this summer, big companies like AT&T have waged expensive legal and political campaigns against cities that seek to build out broadband alternatives. The campaigns have resulted in many states passing laws that limit cities’ ability to build or expand their internet services, leaving some communities with speeds of under 5 megabits per second — less than what is needed to watch online video (gigabit-speed internet by contrast would be 400 times faster).

The new coalition, however, does not appear to favor a single ideological approach, but rather simply notes, “Towns and cities should have the right to consider all options – whether public, nonprofit, corporate, or some other hybrid – free from interference.”

The Chattanooga and Wilson petitions are currently before the FCC, where Chairman Tom Wheeler has stated in the past that he thinks the FCC has the power to pre-empt the state laws. If the agency invokes pre-emption, it will almost certainly be sued by the telecommunications industry.

Here’s the full list of cities who are part of Next Centuries Cities:  Ammon, ID; Auburn, IN; Austin, TX; Boston, MA; Centennial, CO; Champaign, IL; Chattanooga, TN; Clarksville, TN; Jackson, TN; Kansas City, KS; Kansas City, MO; Lafayette, LA; Lexington, KY; Leverett, MA; Louisville, KY Montrose, CO;  Morristown, TN; Mount Vernon, WA; Palo Alto, CA; Ponca City, OK; Portland, OR; Raleigh, NC; Rockport, ME; San Antonio, TX; Sandy, OR; Santa Cruz County, CA; Santa Monica, CA; South Portland, ME; Urbana, IL; Westminster, MD; Wilson, NC; Winthrop, MN.