Expanding Internet To Rural Areas Creates Epic Showdown Between Feds And States

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Eric Lieberman Deputy Editor
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The federal government is intensifying its efforts in an ongoing battle with states over implementation of broadband projects for rural communities.

Feds want to grant Internet coverage to some of the more remote communities in the U.S., in order to stay up-to-date with 21st century society. States want control over the issue since it directly impacts municipalities, which are constitutionally under state governance.

Several private businesses are getting caught in the middle, The New York Times reports.

The city of Wilson, N.C., installed broadband networks because larger commercial networks are often uninterested in sparsely-populated communities, since they may not be profitable endeavors.

Vick Family Farms, a cultivator and purveyor of sweet potatoes in Wilson, saw its business take off when the town established its own broadband infrastructure. The agriculture enterprise was then able to apply Internet capabilities to business structure, including digitized bar codes that allowed data to be cataloged in a much cheaper and more efficient manner.

The farm has even been able to increase production and sales to Europe, according to The New York Times.

But because of the legal disputes, Internet access in the small North Carolina town may be cut off.

“We’re very worried because there is no way we could run this equipment on the internet service we used to have, and we can’t imagine the loss we’ll have to the business,” Charlotte Vick, head of sales, told The New York Times.

The struggle began when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 3-2 in 2015 to issue a directive that circumvented state law,and directly increased Internet installments and investments, according to Reuters.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld these statutes in North Carolina and Tennessee a couple of weeks ago, because they are state privileges. The court ruled that the FCC “order essentially serves to re-allocate decision-making power between the states and their municipalities,” and that the federal agency cannot pre-empt state laws.

This ruling allows states to potentially curb or even terminate local ordinance broadband systems, like the one in Wilson.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler described the court’s ruling and the state’s practices as detrimental because they halt, “the promise of jobs, investment and opportunity that community broadband has provided in Tennessee and North Carolina.”

FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai lauded the decision, and criticized the overarching strategy of the government agency he helps lead.

“Rather than wasting its time on illegal efforts to intrude on the prerogatives of state governments,” Pai explained, “the FCC should focus on implementing a broadband deployment agenda to eliminate regulatory barriers that discourage those in the private sector from deploying and upgrading next-generation networks.”

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