President Sees Need for Broadband Speed

The White House Tuesday outlined President Obama's proposals to boost access to "affordable high-speed broadband for all Americans, which will include calling on the FCC to "end laws that harm broadband service competition." It was a preview of one of the President's State of the Union initiatives, and the Administration made clear that the state of broadband was not fast enough.

That is according to Jeff Zients, director of the National Economic Council, and Andy Berke, Mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., who were on a call with reporters previewing the Presidents plans, to be outlined in a speech Wednesday and later in the Jan. 20 State of the Union.

Zients stopped short of saying the President was supporting FCC preemption of state laws limiting municipal broadband, something FCC

Chairman Tom Wheeler has suggested the FCC should do, but Chattanooga is one of a pair of cities (Wilson, N.C., is the other) that has asked the FCC to preempt state regulations limiting municipal broadband buildouts, which cities argue are one way to deliver affordable broadband. A fact sheet from the White House seemed to make clear that the President was providing Wheeler backup for preemption efforts, just as the President offered support and encouragement for Title II reclassification of broadband.

"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," the White House said. "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."

He made clear the Administration thinks there is not enough competition for high speed broadband. "Broadband matters, but a lot of us have a commonly frustrating experience," said Zients on a call with reporters. "Even when we are unhappy with the speed and performance of our Internet service, we don't have a choice. There are no alternative providers we can switch to. Three out of four Americans live in a location that has no competition or service at the broadband speeds increasingly required for many online services."

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has already signaled that 25 Mbps is the new table stakes, and the White House also seemed to be signaling that underserved areas would be defined by speed, not just whether or not there was service.

Zients said the lack of broadband was rarely a lack of demand, but more often the cost of infrastructure, and "a combination of laws that rpevent communities from providing incentives." He said Americans want and need better and faster broadband.

Also part of the President's plan to get higher-speed broadband to everyone:

"Expanding the National Movement of Local Leaders for Better Broadband: As of today, 50 cities representing over 20 million Americans have joined the Next Century Cities coalition, a nonpartisan network pledging to bring fast, community-supported broadband to their towns and cities. They join 37 research universities around the country that formed the Gig.U partnership to bring fast broadband to communities around their campuses. To recognize these remarkable individuals and the partnerships they have built, in June 2015 the White House will host a Community Broadband Summit of mayors and county commissioners from around the nation who are joining this movement for broadband solutions and economic revitalization. These efforts will also build on the US Ignite partnership, launched by White House in 2012, and which has grown to include more than 65 research universities and 35 cities in developing new next-generation gigabit applications.

"Announcing a New Initiative to Support Community Broadband Projects: To advance this important work, the Department of Commerce is launching a new initiative, BroadbandUSA, to promote broadband deployment and adoption. Building on expertise gained from overseeing the $4.7 billion Broadband Technology Opportunities Program funded through the Recovery Act, BroadbandUSA will offer online and in-person technical assistance to communities; host a series of regional workshops around the country; and publish guides and tools that provide communities with proven solutions to address problems in broadband infrastructure planning, financing, construction, and operations across many types of business models.

"Unveiling New Grant and Loan Opportunities for Rural Providers: The Department of Agriculture is accepting applications to its Community Connect broadband grant program and will reopen a revamped broadband loan program, which offers financing to eligible rural carriers that invest in bringing high-speed broadband to unserved and under served rural areas.

"Removing Regulatory Barriers and Improving Investment Incentives: The President is calling for the Federal Government to remove all unnecessary regulatory and policy barriers to broadband build-out and competition, and is establishing a new Broadband Opportunity Council of over a dozen government agencies with the singular goal of speeding up broadband deployment and promoting adoptions for our citizens. The Council will also solicit public comment on unnecessary regulatory barriers and opportunities to promote greater coordination with the aim of addressing those within its scope.

The White House briefing was a preview of the President's visit to Cedar Falls, Iowa, where he will talk about his high-speed broadband agenda in advance of the State of the Union (SOTU) ( Broadband deployment has been a feature of previous SOTU's

Last year, for example, the President announced that the FCC and some major telecoms and edge providers were getting together to help connect 15,000 schools to high-speed broadband ( In 2012, the President said one of the nation's construction challenges was an "incomplete high-speed broadband network" that prevented some small businesses from reaching world markets. (

In the 2011 SOTU, the President announced the National Wireless Initiative and pledged that "within the next five years, we will make it possible for business to deploy the next generation of high-speed wireless coverage to 98% of all Americans. This isn't just about a faster Internet and fewer dropped calls," he said at the time. "It's about connecting every part of America to the digital age."

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association blogged about the President's anticipated initiatives before the White House call.

Saying the reports of his Iowa visit seemed "like a good opportunity for us to take stock of the current state of broadband and how we might connect more Americans to fast broadband networks. Over the last two decades, America’s cable providers have invested over $230 billion to extend and upgrade fast broadband connections to  communities large and small, urban and rural, in all corners of America. In just the last decade, the average cable broadband customer has  seen top speeds increase a whopping 3200%..."

"Cable’s pace of technological progress shows no signs of abating," NCTA said. It did identify two areas where government could help, and one where it could hurt.

"While the cable industry continues to deliver on faster broadband at declining per-Megabit prices for Americans consumers, we know that that there are two discrete areas that may warrant targeted government attention," NCTA said. "First, for some very rural areas, private economic incentives may not be sufficient to justify network investments. In such areas, government incentives can play a constructive role in promoting universal service. Second, we know that for some Americans, the availability of broadband infrastructure is insufficient to spur adoption. The cable industry is committed to closing this digital divide by educating consumers about the benefits of broadband and by offering programs to help families overcome barriers they may face, including discounted service. You can learn more about those programs on our Closing the Digital Divide page."

But where the government could hurt was in the Title II arena, NCTA said.

"Instead of building on policies that have helped spur private investment, President Obama’s call to reclassify broadband as a Title II telecommunications service threatens to raise the cost of capital associated with network investment and slow continued progress in building faster and better broadband. Given the FCC’s ability to restore net neutrality rules without taking such extreme action, Title II appears particularly misguided."

Zients was asked about the impact of Title II. He said the Administration did not think it would have an adverse impact.

“I welcome the President’s focus on deploying high-speed broadband and improving competition in communities across America, particularly in rural areas," said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).  "Broadband is long past the point of being a luxury – it is a necessity, and the gap between urban and rural America is not closing nearly fast enough.  The lack of adequate choices for consumers is also one of the main reasons why the FCC must act swiftly to protect an open Internet.  I stand ready to work with the President and other Members of Congress to enact policies that will ensure that all Americans, whether they live in rural or urban areas, have access to fast and affordable broadband.”

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.