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'The efforts of so many people to legitimize community networks are now paying off.' (Image: DecideLocally.com)

Arguing for Faster Internet, Obama Goes to Bat for Municipal Broadband

President says "enough is enough" when it comes to the large telecom companies blocking cities from starting their own, locally-controlled networks

Jon Queally

In what advocates of locally-owned and operated broadband networks are calling "a great moment for the principle of local self-reliance," President Obama has announced his intention to fight back against efforts by the telecommunications industry to block the building or improvement of municipal internet networks.

"These prohibitions on municipal broadband were passed lightning-fast through state legislatures with tons of AT&T and cable company money behind them and they are blatantly anti-public." —Holmes Wilson, Fight for the FutureCiting places like Cedar Falls in Iowa, Tennessee's Chattanooga, and Lafayette, Louisiana—cities "which have Internet speeds nearly 100 times faster than the national average and deliver it at an affordable price"—Obama said it is time to end corporate opposition to the initiatives that have made such powerful and more democratically-controlled networks possible.

"In too many places across America, some big companies are doing everything they can to keep out competitors," Obama said in a video statement. "Today I am saying we are going to change that. Enough is enough."

Watch:

Alongside his announcement, the White House presented a fact sheet outlining the municipal broadband initiative and a new report (pdf) authored by the National Economic Council and Council of Economic Advisers which examines the success stories of "community-based broadband" projects. As part of the administration's effort, a specific focus will be placed on making it easier for municipalities that want to build their own networks to do so. According to the fact sheet:

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. 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. As a first step, the Administration is filing a letter with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) urging it to join this effort by addressing barriers inhibiting local communities from responding to the broadband needs of their citizens.

Rebecca Toewes, a communication specialist with the Institute for Local-Self Reliance (ILSR), which has been among the nation's strongest advocates of municipal broadband, reacted with welcome surprise to the president's announcement and called it "a great moment for the principle of local self-reliance." In a post on the Community Broadband Networks website, an ISLR project which focuses on the issue, Toewes wrote:

When we started to hear rumors that the White House was investigating community owned networks, we were excited but not sure what to expect. I have to admit that seeing President Obama – the President of the United States – saying that Cedar Falls was smart to invest in themselves was much more powerful than I ever expected.

The efforts of so many people to legitimize community networks are now paying off. Belittled by the big cable companies and their paid experts, we certainly were not destined to reach this point. But we are here – and everyone now recognizes that local governments can play an important role in ensuring we all have great Internet access.

In an interview with Guardian, Holmes Wilson, co-director of the nonprofit digital rights advocacy group Fight for the Future, said Obama’s broadband rollout is a "a wonderful and obvious step" towards a better internet for U.S. residents.

"These prohibitions on municipal broadband were passed lightning-fast through state legislatures with tons of AT&T and cable company money behind them and they are blatantly anti-public," Wilson said. "If the town wants to get together and try to do better than the local internet provider, why on earth would you want to stop that?"

Curious about what a "municipal broadband network" is or why they are seen as so important by some? This video, produced by the 'Decide Locally' campaign, explains:

 The Guardian adds:

Along with this proposal, Obama is calling for a removal of all “unnecessary regulatory and policy barriers to broadband build-out,” according to a White House outline. A coalition of government agencies would attempt to speed up the implementation of these programs, though how much power such an entity would actually have is unclear.

Obama is also calling for a national broadband summit in June, where community leaders would discuss the best practices for enabling fast broadband in cities. But a looming vote on net neutrality rules expected in late February could change that discussion. In early November, Obama announced that he strongly opposed efforts by telecoms companies to get online “fast lanes” for customers that pay more for internet. FCC watchers expect a vote to fall somewhere between, in an effort to keep telecom lobbyists at bay while offering an olive branch to open-internet advocates

“We desperately need a net neutrality rule that says: if you are an internet provider, you have to treat all content equally,” said Fight for the Future’s Wilson. “Otherwise we are going to get local internet providers, local monopolies, using their market power to distort what people can do and say online and extract more money from customers.”


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