What's behind President Obama's push for high-speed Internet

President Obama will focus on increasing access to broadband Internet in his State of the Union address Tuesday. He says changes will spur economic growth and create greater social equality.

Charlie Neibergall/AP
President Obama speaks at Cedar Falls Utilities, Wednesday, in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Mr. Obama is encouraging the Federal Communications Commission to preempt state laws that stifle competition for high-speed Internet service.

In the lead up to his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Obama has turned his attention to a somewhat under-the-radar issue: the state of broadband Internet connections in the United States.

The American Internet ranks 31st in the world in average download speeds, according to a recent study by Ookla, a Montana-based software company. Mr. Obama blames a lack of competition and says faster Internet connections will spur economic growth and greater social equality. He wants the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to reclassify broadband Internet as a public utility, which would allow local municipalities to create and expand their own networks.

Internet service providers are up in arms, saying such a move would make things worse. But Andy Berke, the mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., said during an Obama administration teleconference last week that his city's construction of a municipal broadband network has been “essential for the city’s economic development.”

In a YouTube video posted Monday, Obama stated that his plan for broadband, to be revealed in his State of the Union address, would show how regular people can share in a growing economy. Last Wednesday, he visited Cedar Falls, Iowa, which has also created its own municipal broadband network with speeds 50 to 100 times faster than an average Internet connection.

"In too many places across America, some big companies are doing everything they can to keep out competitors," said Obama in Cedar Falls. "In some states it is virtually impossible to create [fast] networks like the one you have in Cedar Falls.”

Jeffrey Zients, director of the White House's National Economic Council, said on the teleconference that broadband Internet is so essential to economic well being that it should be treated as a public utility, like electricity. "Broadband is no longer a luxury," he said. "It is a necessity for businesses, for families, and for our national competitiveness."

But "huge telecommunication companies" such as Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon, and AT&T have "divided up markets and put themselves in a position where they're subject to no competition," said Susan Crawford, a former special assistant to Obama for science, technology, and innovation, in a video published by Vice in February 2013.

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) agrees that government intervention could effectively increase broadband access in rural and low-income communities. But it says making the Internet a public utility would be counterproductive.

"While government run networks may be appropriate in rare cases, many such enterprises have ended up in failure, saddling taxpayers with significant long-term financial liabilities and diverting scarce resources from other pressing local needs," said Michael Powell, former FCC chairman and current head of the NCTA.

The industry has said it is spending aggressively to improve broadband speeds and access.

"The wireless industry has invested $100 billion in the last four years alone," Meredith Attwell Baker, president of CTIA – The Wireless Association, an industry lobbying group, said in a statement. "In such a vigorously competitive market, government-owned networks would only serve to chill private-sector investment, tilt the competitive playing field and harm consumers."

The countries with the fastest Internet connections are Hong Kong and Singapore, according to Ookla. Hungary, Slovakia, and Uruguay rank above the US.

In his State of the Union address, Obama is expected to highlight $40 million in Department of Agriculture loans earmarked for rural broadband development. An additional $4.7 billion initiative through the Department of Commerce is set to assist communities with broadband infrastructure planning.

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