Federal initiatives aim to expand internet service options

Federal initiatives aim to expand internet service options

President Barack Obama visits Iowa to champion more internet service options, faster broadband

As farmers increasingly rely on technology to make their operations more efficient, local governments – including rural entities – are looking for ways to improve citizens' access to broadband internet.

Part of that access includes increasing competition by allowing municipalities to step in as internet providers, President Barack Obama said Wednesday. He unveiled a series of regulatory steps intended to help communities do just that during a visit to Cedar Falls, Iowa.

Related: Fast Internet in Rural America?

U.S. President Barack Obama, greets employees and guests at the Cedar Falls Utilities office after he laid out new steps to increase access to affordable, high-speed broadband across the country Jan. 14, 2014, in Cedar Falls, Iowa. (Photo by Steve Pope/Getty Images)

"Today, high-speed broadband is not a luxury, it's a necessity," Obama said, stressing the internet's impact on education and commerce. "Right now, about 45 million Americans cannot purchase next-generation broadband."

The President said one of the reasons for the disparity is regulation. Currently, laws in 19 states prohibit communities' ability to step in as an internet provider.

"I believe that a community has the right to make its own choice and to provide its own broadband if it wants to," Obama said. "Nobody is going to force you to do it, but if you want to do it, if the community decides this is something that we want to do to give ourselves a competitive edge and to help our young people and our businesses, they should be able to do it."

Specifically, the president called for:
• an end to laws that limit internet provider options;
• expansion of partnerships that foster faster, better broadband;
• launch of the BroadbandUSA initiative, which aims to help communities in broadband deployment, education and adoption;
• revitalization of the USDA's Community Connect broadband loan program; and
• establishment of the Broadband Opportunity Council

Related: Lawmakers Consider Rural Access to Broadband, Expansion Capabilities in Hearing

The steps are built on the President's previously announced net neutrality platform. The President plans to expand on the steps during his State of the Union address, scheduled for Jan. 20.

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The White House noted that the focus on broadband access is built on the idea that it has tangible economic benefits. The President pointed to successes of Chattanooga, Tenn., Kansas City, Mo., and Lafayette, La. – all places that have internet speeds that are 100 times faster than the national average, delivered at affordable prices.

Cedar Falls was chosen for the President's appearance because of its significance as the United States' first one-gigabit city.

The White House will be receiving assistance from the Federal Communications Commission, USDA and Department of Commerce in implementing the new initiatives, the President said.

The FCC, he said, will help to push back on old laws that limit competition, while the Commerce Department will offer technical support and assistance to communities looking into developing internet options. USDA, Obama said, is scheduled to announce new loan opportunities for rural providers in the near future.

USDA has previously supported rural internet access through its Community Connect Grant Program and Broadband Initiatives Program, though participants in the latter were cited in a Government Accountability Report last spring for sluggish project completion.

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