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Will Obama’s Support of Broadband Competition Matter?

Experts weigh in on the impact President Barack Obama’s remarks on broadband may have in state legislatures and the marketplace.

President Barack Obama’s comments last week in support of broadband competition ignited a firestorm of replies, including praise and applause from community network proponents, and warnings from lawmakers that Uncle Sam should mind its own business.

Speaking in Cedar Falls, Iowa, on Wednesday, Jan. 14, the president said that big telecommunications companies are stifling broadband competition and he’ll take steps to change that. During his speech, Obama said he would encourage high-speed Internet connectivity expansion through a series of federal grants and loans for Internet service providers.

But most experts believe that even if the commander-in-chief’s statement doesn’t lead to extensive federal involvement on the matter, it’ll raise awareness about the value of local government-owned networks.

Madison, Wis., Mayor Paul Soglin told Government Technology that he’s unsure if Obama’s stumping for broadband competition will have an impact legislatively. He noted that many states that have laws preventing or restricting the growth of community broadband networks were in part drafted with language influenced by companies such as AT&T, and he doesn’t imagine state legislatures changing their positions.

Soglin was hopeful about the states that didn’t have legislation on the books, however.

“By highlighting this, in those states where the industry is attempting to get similar [restrictions] adopted, the president’s address may be a wake-up call that this is not wise public policy, he said. “Either in terms of equity for their citizens, or in terms of the future of their business and technology communities.”

Christopher Mitchell, director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and a national expert on community broadband, called Obama’s speech “tremendously positive” for bringing muni-broadband issues to the forefront. But he admitted concern over how it may impact the political landscape.

“I hope it means that we will see fewer Democrats supporting bills to revoke local authority to invest and partner for these networks,” Mitchell said. “But I fear it may galvanize state and national-elected Republicans to oppose these strategies even as the Republican grassroots strongly believes these decisions should be made locally.”

But not everyone was enamored with the President chiming in on broadband. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., and Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore., felt private investment should be relied on to develop broadband networks – not federal dollars.

Upton and Walden said that the Internet is a success story that gets better each day not only because of the amount of money invested in it, but also because of limited federal government interference. They noted that while Cedar Falls is an example of a city that has had a successful muni-broadband network, the history of such projects is “littered with many costly failures.”

FCC Involvement

Wilson, N.C., and the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga, Tenn., filed petitions with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) earlier this year asking it to vacate state laws that are preventing cities from providing and expanding communications services.

There are approximately 20 states with laws on the books that prevent or impede municipal broadband networks from being built, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

While the FCC has yet to announce whether it will take up the petition, Obama’s statement on broadband could have an impact on what the FCC will do. Soglin noted that the FCC is split on some of the broadband and Internet topics, but felt Obama’s message could be a critical tipping point.

“I just can’t imagine that the president would have given this speech placing so much emphasis on the importance of what the chairman of the FCC does, without having some inkling or foresight as to what would happen,” Soglin said.

The president is expected to further reveal his thoughts on broadband competition during his State of the Union address.

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines from 2011 to mid-2015.