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President Obama to Announce Support for Publicly Owned Internet Service

Barack Obama Broadband Internet
Aude Guerrucci-Pool/Getty Images

After pledging his support for a controversial regulatory approach to net neutrality, President Obama on Wednesday will unveil a set of proposals to expand Internet adoption, including one that would enable more cities to offer their own broadband service.

Obama will outline his proposals in a speech in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

The administration will urge the FCC to move to preempt state laws that prohibit municipalities from offering their own broadband service, with an eye toward bolstering competition in markets where high-speed Internet offerings are lacking. Communities like Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C., offer broadband service through utilities, but they have asked the FCC to prohibit state laws that prevent them from offering service in surrounding areas.

Such a move is opposed by major Internet service providers like AT&T, but the White House says some of the laws in 19 states that prohibit municipal broadband were “written by special interests trying to stifle new competitors.” FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has for some time championed the idea of municipal broadband, seeing it as a way to increase competition in a marketplace where choices for high-speed Internet access are few.

Obama also will announce BroadbandUSA, an initiative of the Department of Commerce to offer technical assistance to communities grappling with infrastructure planning, financing and construction. The Department of Agriculture is offering loans to eligible rural carriers that invest in high-speed internet in underserved areas. The White House also will host a Community Broadband Summit in June, with mayors and county commissioners gathered to talk about the problems of bringing fast Internet service to their towns.

But it’s likely that Obama’s pledge to support municipal broadband will get the most attention, as it is another proposal that puts him at odds with Internet providers. His call for the FCC to reclassify the Internet as a Title II telecommunications service was met with opposition from ISPs, but it seems to have bolstered support from Wheeler for making such a regulatory move. The FCC will vote on net neutrality on Feb. 26.

Likewise, ISPs have been wary of municipal broadband, and have championed laws at the state level to prevent it. AT&T argues that municipally owned broadband service can “discourage private sector investment because of understandable concerns by private sector entities of a non-level playing field.”

A new report issued by the National Economic Council and the Council for Economic Advisers, however, singles out cities like Chattanooga for having broadband that is nearly 100 times faster than the national average, but still available at a competitive price.

In his speech, Obama is expected to point out that in several major cities, many residents have only one or two choices for broadband service, in which speeds lag, and few have options for fast, fiber-optic connections. He’s also expected to point to Chattanooga and Cedar Falls as examples of cities that have seen a spike in technology investment and start-ups with the lure of superior broadband service.

The White House released a video on Tuesday of Obama explaining the proposals.