The Rancho Santa Fe Association’s recent decision to move forward with plans to build a fiber optic network coincided with a monumental shift in United States broadband policy.
On February 26, the Federal Communications Commission classified broadband Internet as a public utility and now Internet services that are delivered to customers cannot be degraded or enhanced by Internet service providers for any reason. Behind the headlines, the FCC’s decision also took a step toward overriding existing state laws that bar communities from building their own fiber optic networks.
Many rural communities around the country currently struggle with low quality Internet service. With large spaces and low density, rural areas are not lucrative endeavours for large telecommunication companies to undertake.
The lack of Internet service has driven many local governments to pursue building their own fiber optic networks. This trend has caused many state lawmakers, backed by major telecoms, to enact laws that prevent municipalities from creating their own fiber optic networks.
Currently, Tennessee and North Carolina are examples of 19 states that have laws that interfere with a local municipality's ability to construct broadband infrastructure. In a 3-2 decision the FCC ruled that Tennessee and North Carolina can no longer restrict the building of broadband networks.
The decision is expected to have repercussions in other cases around the country where state law interferes with local municipalities’ ability to construct publicly-owned fiber optic networks.
So what does this mean for the Ranch’s new initiative to install a fiber optic network?
The answer is a little unclear. While California does not have a specific law that bans communities from building their own fiber networks, there is a statute that says that communities that build their own networks can do so "until a private person or entity is ready, willing, and able to acquire, construct, improve, maintain, and operate broadband services."
In other words, California communities can build their own networks, but if a telecommunication company is willing to take over the network, the municipality has to lease or give control over to that service provider.
In Rancho Santa Fe’s case, leasing the network to an ISP was always one of the advantages of building the project. The precedent set by the FCC in February would suggest that Rancho Santa Fe can own the network and would not have to give up ownership to an ISP.
In any regard, the Board is currently in the second phase of the project, which will include a both an analysis of the legal considerations as well has both public and private financing models. The purpose of the second phase is to ensure that the community maintains maximum control over the destiny of their infrastructure while minimizing financial risk to its residents.
We will update you as the story and details progress.