Lombard Street in San Francisco, with laser beams photoshopped onto the street.

Enlarge / Lombard Street in San Francisco. (credit: Getty Images | Michael Lee)

The Federal Communications Commission today voted to preempt part of a San Francisco ordinance that promotes broadband competition in apartment buildings and other multi-tenant structures. But it’s not clear exactly what effect the preemption will have, because San Francisco says the FCC’s Republican majority has misinterpreted what the law does.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s plan partially overturns San Francisco’s Article 52, which lets Internet service providers use the existing wiring inside multi-unit buildings even if another ISP already serves the building. The FCC said it’s preempting the law “to the extent it requires the sharing of in-use wiring.” But Pai’s proposal admits the FCC doesn’t know whether the San Francisco law actually requires sharing of in-use wiring, which makes it difficult to understand whether the FCC preemption will change anything in practice.

San Francisco itself told the FCC that its law doesn’t apply to in-use wiring, and the law’s text never uses the phrase “in-use.” Instead, it applies to “any existing wiring,” which the FCC says could be interpreted to include wiring that’s actively being used by another ISP.

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