Obama Voices Support for Municipal Broadband Networks

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President Obama gave a boost to advocates of municipal broadband networks in the US with a speech in Cedar Falls, Iowa last week. Speaking from a Cedar Falls Utility facility, Obama expressed broad support for community broadband efforts, touting high speed internet access as an economic necessity.

While high speed internet access improves the Internet’s fun aspects, like Netflix and Facebook, Obama said the real benefit of increased broadband access is to American business. “This is about helping local businesses grow and prosper and compete in a global economy. It’s about giving the entrepreneur, the small businessperson on Main Street a chance to compete with the folks out in Silicon Valley, or across the globe. It’s about helping a student access the online courses and employment opportunities that can help her pursue her dreams,” the President said.

Further, Obama endorsed municipally-built infrastructure projects, like the one in Cedar Falls or the one Westminster, Marlyland contracted Ting to operate last week. Obama said “a community has right to make its own choice and to provide its own broadband if it wants to. If there are state laws in place that prohibit or restrict these community-based efforts, all of us, including the FCC, should do everything we can to push back on those old laws. More competition means better products and cheaper prices.”

Cedar Falls Utility operates that town’s network as an ISP, which spurred criticism of Obama’s plan on the grounds that it blocks private companies from starting up in or expanding into areas with publicly-funded community broadband. Mediacom, which operates as an ISP in Iowa, released a statement immediately after Obama’s speech, claiming that “the White House wants to waste taxpayer dollars to supplant our Nation’s private sector broadband providers with government-owned utility companies.”

Cedar Falls Utility has offered broadband since 1994, and hundreds of local businesses have 1Gbps service, according to Betty Zeman, marketing manager of the public company. There are over 140 successfully operating public-owned city networks in the US, with 40 offering 1Gbps speed, according to Gigaom.

Twenty-one states have laws restricting community broadband projects. In Colorado, eight municipalities voted in November to establish telecom utilities to bypass that state’s restrictions and build community broadband networks.

Community broadband may be good or bad for ISPs; it probably depends on other factors, and Ting and Mediacom seem to disagree. For most hosts and other network service providers, however, more people with fast internet access are surely a good thing.

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