President Obama got behind cities’ efforts to build their own municipal broadband networks calling for an end to the laws in what he said were 19 states that prevented or made such networks difficult to build in a speech on Wednesday in Cedar Fall, Iowa. He also said the U.S. Department of Agriculture would be establishing a loan program to help rural areas build out networks, while the Department of Commerce would help provide expertise.
Later this summer we can expert a report and summit for mayors at the White House to share information and knowledge about how to build out municipal networks. The speech and exhortations were part of a series of announcements the president is making ahead of his State of the Union speech next week. In an unusual move he’s pre-announcing much of the content of that speech.
The president has tackled a variety of broadband issues during his two terms in office beginning with several billion in spending for broadband networks as part of the recovery bills in 2009. He also has advocated for more wireless spectrum as well as network neutrality.
His focus on municipal broadband was twofold, touching on its potential for faster speeds and on competition. In line with FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler saying that 25 Mbps speeds should be the real definition of broadband as opposed to 4 Mbps, the U.S. will soon face a real broadband gap, since a significant chunk of the country — 55 million people — doesn’t currently have access to those speeds.
And as the president pointed out in his speech, at faster speeds, especially superfast speeds (he wasn’t specific, but my bet is 100 Mbps or above) 75 percent of Americans only have the choice of one provider. Clearly, absent a federal broadband network, which isn’t going to happen, the best bet cities and states have is some kind of municipally funded network that might offer an alternative provider.
This is especially important in rural areas where big corporations have little incentive to build out fiber networks. The president’s actions today, and countless actions taken by the FCC before now (often related to arcana such as pole attachments and legal opinions about rights of way) will certainly help municipalities and potential partners of municipalities build out new super fast networks, but it won’t be enough.
Building and operating a network is not easy. It’s a job that requires a high level of skill and expertise that also requires continual investments and upgrades. Any city that commits to building a municipal network needs to commit to understanding what it takes to own and operate the network for the long haul and what kinds of investments it will need compared with assets a city might already understand like roads or sewage treatment plants.
So if the President’s experts and reports are also going to contribute to this level of expertise, and help ensure that cities know how to both build and operate a muni broadband network, I’m truly excited about the prospect of seeing more locales come into the 21st century. And either way, I’ll be thrilled to see the laws preventing municipalities from building networks get struck down.