President Obama's strong support for community internet networks drew sharp criticism on Wednesday from cable and telecom industry groups, as well as Republican lawmakers who called the White House's plan to boost local internet coverage and speeds an unacceptable breach of "states' rights."
Almost overnight, Obama has made internet policy a major political battleground between the White House and GOP lawmakers, who are a fresh off a huge election win and spoiling for a fight over Obama's executive actions.
Speaking in Cedar Falls, Iowa, Obama called for the Federal Communications Commission to preempt industry-backed state laws that ban or discourage local communities from building super-fast networks. Many such networks would use fiber-optic technology to deliver gigabit internet speeds that are 100 times faster than the national average, often in rural or underserved areas where industry incumbents have been slow to upgrade infrastructure.
"In too many places across America, some big companies are doing everything they can to keep out competitors," Obama said during a speech in which he praised the local Cedar Falls municipal network. "We've got laws on the books that stamp out competition and make it really difficult for communities to provide their own broadband. Today, I'm saying we're going to change that. Enough's enough."
Last year, a report by the Center for Public Integrity found that US cable and telecom giants have spent millions of dollars over the last decade to "lobby state legislatures, influence state elections and buy research to try to stop the spread of public internet services that often offer faster speeds at cheaper rates."
Last November, Obama called for a strict approach to net neutrality, drawing fury from GOP lawmakers and industry lobbyists. Now, Obama wants the federal government to empower local communities to take control of their own communications futures, despite limits placed by lawmakers in 21 states around the country.
Next month, the FCC will decide whether to assist two cities—Wilson, North Carolina and Chattanooga, Tennessee —which have asked the feds to help them bypass state laws that pose barriers to super-fast community networks. Obama's latest statement provides a powerful political boost to FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, who has made clear his intention to "preempt state laws that ban competition from community broadband."
Major cable and telecom companies have opposed attempts to create community broadband networks, often claiming that such systems put private industry at a competitive disadvantage, or fail entirely, wasting public resources. And some prominent GOP lawmakers portray federal support for community networks as an unacceptable violation of "states rights" and "state sovereignty" by "big government" run amok.
AT&T argues local incentives for community broadband networks create a "non-level playing field"
"In Tennessee we have a term to describe people like President Obama—tone-deaf," Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the Tennessee Republican who has received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the cable and telecom industry, said in a statement Wednesday. "At a time when Americans think the biggest problem facing our nation today is big government, you would think he'd have gotten the message by now." Blackburn added that she would work to "block any attempt by the FCC to insert themselves into our states' sovereign economic and fiscal affairs."
Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE), accused Obama of pushing a "federal takeover of state laws governing broadband and the internet." Describing Obama's plan to give local communities more control over the future of their communications networks, Fischer said that "Washington-centric solutions set a dangerous precedent and have real impacts on local communities and businesses."
The National Governors Association and the National Conference of State Legislatures have also urged the FCC not to help local communities overcome state laws that post barriers to community networks, according to the Associated Press.
Meanwhile, the two major national industry lobbying organizations that represent the largest cable and phone companies issued statements on Wednesday reiterating their opposition to federal interference with anti-community network state laws. Both organizations are led by former FCC officials who left public service for lucrative jobs representing the companies they had previously regulated.
"Rather than chase false solutions, government policies should be directed at overcoming barriers to adoption and extending the reach of broadband to places yet unserved," said Michael Powell, a former FCC chairman who currently leads the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), a top industry lobbying group. A Comcast representative declined to comment on Obama's plan, instead pointing to the NCTA statement.
Former FCC commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker, who left the FCC to become a senior executive at Comcast before taking the helm of CTIA: The Wireless Association, which represents AT&T and Verizon, called Obama's plan to help local communities "the wrong path forward." Describing the wireless industry as "a vigorously competitive market," Attwell said that "government-owned networks would only serve to chill private sector investment, tilt the competitive playing field, and harm consumers."
Representatives for AT&T and Verizon did not immediately return a request for comment, but in a filing with the FCC last fall, AT&T argued that government officials shouldn't give local communities incentives to build community broadband networks because that would create a "non-level playing field."
Obama and Wheeler also face GOP opposition inside the FCC, which is controlled 3-2 by Democrats. The two Republican commissioners, Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly, both issued statements opposing FCC action.
Citing the Supreme Court, Pai said that the FCC lacks "authority to preempt state restrictions on municipal broadband projects. The FCC instead should focus on removing regulatory barriers to broadband deployment by the private sector." O'Rielly said the plan is "completely without statutory authority and would be a good candidate for court review, if adopted."
FCC Chairman Wheeler has made clear, however, that he believes the FCC has the authority to preempt state laws that erect barriers to community broadband efforts. And with Obama's backing, it looks likely that Wheeler plans to use it.
Correction 1/15: An earlier version of this story made one mention to Cedar Rapids instead of Cedar Falls, which was correctly referenced elsewhere. Our apologies, Iowa.