Obama pushes broadband access ahead of State of the Union

President Obama on Wednesday outlined his administration's plans to expand high-speed Internet access around the country by pre-empting state laws that restrict the expansion of city-owned broadband networks. 

During a speech in Iowa, Obama pressured the Federal Communications Commission to do everything it could to "push back on those old laws" around the country. 

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"In too many places across America, some big companies are doing everything they can to keep out competitors," Obama said in a speech, highlighting an issue to be featured in his State of the Union address next week.  

"Today in 19 states we've got laws on the books that stamp out competition, and make it really difficult for communities to provide their own broadband the way you guys are,” he told a crowd in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

In a letter to the FCC, the administration said cities should have the option of setting up their own networks or forming public-private partnerships when traditional providers are not meeting the needs of the community — noting that would not always be the best solution. 

Obama also announced that 50 cities had signed on to bring “community-supported” broadband to their area, as part of the Next Century Cities coalition, and will host a June meeting with mayors on the subject. 

"Not long ago, I made my position clear on net neutrality; I believe we've got to maintain a free and open Internet,” Obama said. “Today I'm making my administration's position clear on community broadband.” 

Ahead of Obama's remarks, the FCC announced that in February it would take up two petitions from cities asking it to intervene on the issue — one from Chattanooga, Tenn., and the other from Wilson, N.C. 

"The FCC has been working diligently to expand broadband deployment and increase consumer choice and competition nationwide, including reviewing complaints from cities that have been prohibited from providing competitive high-speed alternatives," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a statement.

The White House picked Cedar Falls, Iowa, for Obama's speech — one of a number of cities that have set up their own city-run broadband networks. It offers customers Internet speeds of 1 gigabit per second, nearly 100 times the speed of average broadband.

Obama also touted Chattanooga as "unleashing a tornado of innovation" after rolling out its city-run network. He noted the change in a place "once called the dirtiest city in the nation."

Advocates say municipal broadband networks generate public benefits and are often put in place after traditional cable companies skip out on investment. In a report issued in December, the Commerce Department concluded customers have little choice in Internet provider when seeking speeds above the average. 

For example, only about one-third of people have an option in providers when looking for 25 megabits per second (Mbps), according to the report. 

But the cable industry on Wednesday touted its own hundreds of billions of dollars in investment, and said government investment should occur only in places where private networks aren't economically viable.

"While government-run networks may be appropriate in rare cases, many such enterprises have ended up in failure, saddling taxpayers with significant long-term financial liabilities and diverting scarce resources from other pressing local needs," said Michael Powell, head of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. 

Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai and other critics of the commission’s plans to pre-empt state laws said the commission does not have the constitutional authority to act. 

The other Republican commissioner, Michael O'Rielly, accused the White House of failing to respect the commission's independence, and accused Wheeler of lacking a "sufficient backbone." If the FCC follows through on Obama's recommendation, it "would be a good candidate for court review," he said. 

During Obama’s speech, the president also highlighted a number of Agriculture Department loans and grants available to cities to help expand broadband in rural areas, and a Commerce Department program that offers help with city broadband planning. 

Under the president’s direction, more than a dozen agencies are also forming a council to encourage broadband deployment around the country.