Obama to unveil plan for expanding broadband

President Obama on Wednesday will unveil a plan to expand broadband Internet across the country through new federal loans, an interagency council and pressure on local and industry stakeholders.

Obama is slated to visit Iowa on Wednesday, where he will push the Federal Communications Commission to tear down barriers preventing local municipalities from creating and expanding their own broadband networks. 

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The speech comes as Obama outlines a series of initiatives to be featured in his State of the Union address next week. 

The president will send a letter to the FCC urging the agency to address the 19 states that have some type of restriction on expanding locally owned broadband networks. 

The White House also announced more than 50 cities had joined a group pledging to bring "community-supported" broadband to their cities, called the Next Century Cities coalition.

Jeff Zients, director of the National Economic Council, compared broadband Internet to public utilities like electricity. 

"Broadband is no longer a luxury," he said on a conference call. "It is a necessity for businesses, for families and for our national competitiveness." 

Obama picked Cedar Falls, Iowa, for his speech on increasing broadband access. The city is one of dozens that have set up municipal Internet networks to serve their communities. The network, created more than a decade ago, recently began offering 1 gigabit per second Internet speeds, 50 to 100 times the speed of average connections.

Andy Berke, the mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., a city that also operates its own super-fast municipal broadband network using fiber optics, also touted the initiative. He said high-speed broadband has been essential for his city's "economic development and economic equity."

Advocates say municipal broadband networks generate public benefits and are often put in place after traditional cable companies skip out on investment. But critics have said the locally owned networks have an unfair advantage and 19 states have limited municipal build-out. 

In his speech, Obama will highlight at least $40 million in Department of Agriculture loans set aside for rural broadband development. The agency will also unveil a series of broadband grants on Wednesday. Another $4.7 billion initiative through the Department of Commerce will help communities with broadband infrastructure planning. 

The White House is also forming a Broadband Opportunity Council made up of more than a dozen agencies to game out ways to increase broadband deployment. The White House is slated to hold a summit of mayors in June to share best practices on broadband deployment. 

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association said there are a few areas in particular where government intervention would be welcome to increase broadband access — including in rural and low-income communities. But the trade group also took the opportunity to level criticism at Obama’s call for the FCC to reclassify broadband Internet as a public utility. The group said the plan would slow the build-out of faster broadband. 

"The president has made his views clear on net neutrality and that is now part of the FCC process," Zients said. "And we continue to believe that broadband companies will continue to invest in improving their services."

Obama has highlighted efforts to expand broadband in recent years.  

In his last State of the Union address, he noted progress on his pledge to connect nearly every student with high-speed broadband Internet in the next few years.