Obama Backs Government-Run Internet

The president wants to overturn state laws that restrict cities from building their own Internet networks.

Laying down fiber-optic cable in Louisville, CO. 
National Journal
Brendan Sasso
Jan. 13, 2015, 1:37 p.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama will travel to Ce­dar Falls, Iowa, on Wed­nes­day to tout the abil­ity of loc­al gov­ern­ments to provide high-speed In­ter­net to their res­id­ents.

And he will urge the Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion to strike down state laws around the coun­try that re­strict the abil­ity of cit­ies to build their own broad­band net­works. The move is likely to draw fire from Re­pub­lic­ans, who ar­gue that states should be free to set their own policies—in­clud­ing re­stric­tions on loc­al gov­ern­ments.

“Laws in 19 states—some spe­cific­ally writ­ten by spe­cial in­terests try­ing to stifle new com­pet­it­ors—have held back broad­band ac­cess and, with it, eco­nom­ic op­por­tun­ity,” the White House wrote in a fact sheet. “Today, Pres­id­ent Obama is an­noun­cing a new ef­fort to sup­port loc­al choice in broad­band, form­ally op­pos­ing meas­ures that lim­it the range of op­tions avail­able to com­munit­ies to spur ex­pan­ded loc­al broad­band in­fra­struc­ture, in­clud­ing own­er­ship of net­works.”

Tele­com and cable com­pan­ies have been lob­by­ing for the state laws, ar­guing that it’s not fair for them to have to com­pete with gov­ern­ment-owned In­ter­net pro­viders. The com­pan­ies claim the city pro­jects dis­cour­age private in­vest­ment and are of­ten ex­pens­ive fail­ures. House Re­pub­lic­ans passed le­gis­la­tion last year to pro­tect the state laws from FCC ac­tion.

But the White House ar­gues that many Amer­ic­ans lack any op­tion for fast, af­ford­able In­ter­net ser­vice from private pro­viders. Some cit­ies have built their own net­works of­fer­ing speeds 100 times faster than the na­tion­al av­er­age.

In a video re­leased Tues­day, Obama ex­plains that Ce­dar Falls, a city of just 40,000 people, provides broad­band speeds that rival what is avail­able in Seoul, Hong Kong, and Par­is.

“The reas­on they can com­pete with these oth­er cit­ies is cit­izens got to­geth­er and made the in­vest­ment to bring com­pet­i­tion in and make sure In­ter­net speeds were just as fast there as any­where else,” Obama said. “That gives them a huge com­pet­it­ive ad­vant­age. It means a busi­ness can come in and loc­ate there know­ing that they can hook in­to world mar­kets, products, ser­vices, any­where around the globe.”

Chat­tanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C., filed pe­ti­tions last year ask­ing the FCC to nul­li­fy their states’ laws lim­it­ing mu­ni­cip­al broad­band pro­jects. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion plans to file a let­ter ur­ging the FCC to side with the loc­al gov­ern­ments.

FCC Chair­man Tom Wheel­er has already in­dic­ated he is likely to strike down the state lim­it­a­tions. “I be­lieve that it is in the best in­terests of con­sumers and com­pet­i­tion that the FCC ex­er­cises its power to pree­mpt state laws that ban or re­strict com­pet­i­tion from com­munity broad­band,” he said last year.

It’s not the first time that Obama has waded in­to a de­bate at the FCC, an in­de­pend­ent agency that is not bound to com­ply with his wishes. In Novem­ber, he urged the agency to en­act the “strongest pos­sible” net-neut­ral­ity reg­u­la­tions to en­sure users can ac­cess whatever on­line con­tent they choose.

In ad­di­tion to ask­ing the FCC to strike down the state lim­its, the White House plans to host a sum­mit of may­ors and county com­mis­sion­ers who want to build their own broad­band pro­jects. And the Com­merce De­part­ment will provide re­sources and tools to help loc­al of­fi­cials get the pro­jects off the ground.

The White House also plans to cre­ate a Broad­band Op­por­tun­ity Coun­cil to ex­am­ine gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tions that may be hold­ing back broad­band de­ploy­ment. The Ag­ri­cul­ture De­part­ment plans to re­launch a pro­gram to provide loans to rur­al broad­band pro­viders.

—Up­dated at 7:56 p.m.

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