WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama announced measures to support access to faster and cheaper public Internet service during a speech in Iowa on Wednesday.
But his proposals already face staunch opposition from the Federal Communications Commission and some giant Internet service providers.
In a State of the Union preview, the president spoke in Cedar Falls, Iowa, elaborating on the net neutrality plan he released in November.
As one of his first steps, Obama will file a letter with the FCC asking the agency to help address policies that limit the ability of communities to give their citizens more broadband speed at affordable prices.
The administration contends that treating broadband access like a public utility should be universally accepted, but 19 states have laws restricting the creation and expansion of public broadband services.
“In too many places across America,” Obama said in a speech viewed on a livestream, “some big companies are doing everything they can to keep out competitors.”
Despite Obama’s request, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai said his agency would not try to overrule state laws. “The Commission has no authority to preempt state restrictions on municipal broadband projects,” Pai said in a statement.
Pai cited a 2001 Supreme Court ruling that the FCC could not give a city the ability to create or expand public broadband when state law deemed the actions illegal.
“As an independent agency,” Pai said, “the FCC must make its decisions based on the law, not political convenience.”
Even without the FCC’s support in taking down state laws, the president will establish programs within his cabinet. Programs in the departments of Commerce and Agriculture, for example, will support public broadband investment in both urban and rural areas that do not have access to strong Internet services.
The expansion of top-flight Internet service would give small towns and big cities opportunities to advance in a digital economy.
“Folks around the country want these broadband networks,” Obama said, speaking in a utility building in front of wall of hammers, saws and other tools. “They’re good for business. They’re good for communities. They’re good for schools. And they’re good for the marketplace because they promote efficiency and competition.”
The argument for pushing the expansion of publicly operated community broadband programs is an economic one, according to Jeff Zients, director of the National Economic Council, a group that advises the president on economic policy.
“Clearly, Americans want and need better, faster broadband because so much of our day-to-day lives and so many of the jobs we want to create depend on access to the digital economy,” Zients said during a conference call with reporters. “The American economy’s greatest advantage especially in the face of increasing global competition is innovation. It always has been. And high-speed broadband is central to maintaining our global advantage.”
Municipalities such as Cedar Falls, a college town near Waterloo, Iowa, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, are two of many cities to use public broadband, that is, Internet service produced and maintained by city utility departments. These cities currently experience Internet speeds about 100 times faster than the national average, according to the White House.
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke credits his city’s public broadband program for its economic turnaround.
“As a result of our high-speed broadband, we’ve seen a tremendous amount of entrepreneurship, particularly in the innovation world,” Berke said. “… For example, OpenTable, the largest online restaurant reservation company, now has an office in Chattanooga because it purchased a company that started here.”
Similar improvements have occurred in other towns, using money from the federal stimulus package passed in 2009 to build public fiber-optic networks.
In almost every case, public Internet access in cities is cheaper and faster than that of major ISPs, a White House report says. This has pushed corporations to pressure Congress and state legislatures to keep the phenomena from growing larger.
For example, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, representing the nation’s largest broadband providers, spent almost $12 million on lobbying Congress last year. That was the 12th-highest among organizations that lobbied in 2014, according to OpenSecrets.org.
“We agree with the president that connecting all Americans to this critical technology should be a national priority,” NCTA CEO and President Michael Powell said in a statement, “And that is why we have long supported the use of scarce government funding to support universal service in areas where private networks are not economically viable
“America’s decades-long policy of promoting private investment and exercising a light regulatory touch has yielded substantial benefits for American consumers,” Powell said.
In Iowa, Obama argued that the biggest ISPs are often the only choice for broadband service in communities, limiting consumers’ choices when it comes to Internet service. When a community has only one provider, he said, prices increase and the quality of the service decreases.
“Today, I’m making my administration’s position clear on community broadband,” the president said. “I’m on the side of competition… I believe a community has the right to make its own choice. And to provide its own broadband if it wants to.”