FCC to vote on Obama’s call for government-run internet next month

US President Barack Obama (AFP Photo / Saul Loeb)
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will vote in February to decide whether municipalities can bypass state laws to provide their own internet service – a policy that President Barack Obama threw his weight behind earlier this week.

The vote is controversial but has support from the Obama administration, and proponents say it would give the public more options and faster service. Many Republicans and opponents argue that permitting such behavior exceeds the FCC’s authority.

Two cities – Chattanooga, Tennessee and Wilson, North Carolina – have petitioned FCC regulators to allow them to build and operate their own internet service. Supporters argue the proposal would allow municipalities to create competition for large internet providers like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T.

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An FCC official said regulators would vote on the petitions at their monthly meeting in February, according to the Washington Post.

However, the suggestion has sparked opposition because a federal agency generally cannot overturn state laws, and there are 20 states which ban municipal broadband projects. Other opponents argue that municipal broadband would be too costly for taxpayers. In Provo, Utah, millions were spent on providing broadband before the project was abandoned and sold to Google for its Fiber service.

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Supporters, meanwhile, point to a provision in the Telecommunications Act that gives the FCC the authority to “support the deployment” of broadband competition. They argue that this measure could increase competition and potentially compel the large cable and telephone companies which provide the bulk of the nation’s internet to improve their services. Internet providers argue that they invested billions of dollars in broadband infrastructure, and that government-owned networks would chill private-sector investment.

Wading into the debate this week was President Obama, who said, “Today high speed-broadband is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.”

In too many places across America, some big companies are doing everything they can to keep out competitors. Ten of millions of Americans have only one choice for the next-generation broadband. So, they’re pretty much at the whim of whatever internet provider is around.

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A White House report says that while 94 percent of Americans living in urban areas can purchase an internet connection of 25 megabits per second, only 51 percent of Americans in rural areas have access to such speeds.

On Wednesday, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said he was "preparing to respond to complaints" from Chattanooga and Wilson, but didn't offer a specific timeline.