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Obama readies push for faster U.S. internet access

Can the Obama administration deliver faster online speeds for consumers? The president thinks the answer is yes and he has an important plan.
President Barack Obama uses a laptop computer to send a tweet during a "Twitter Town Hall" in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, July 6, 2011.
President Barack Obama uses a laptop computer to send a tweet during a "Twitter Town Hall" in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, July 6, 2011.
In advance of next week's State of the Union address, no one can accuse President Obama of pushing a stale agenda lacking new ideas.

In a YouTube video released by the White House on Tuesday, President Obama speaks to the importance of fast broadband Internet service, and announces his intention to make it accessible to more Americans as a means by which to strengthen the U.S. economy. "One of the things that I'm going to make an early announcement about this week," Obama says in the video, "is the issue of getting faster broadband."

For many Americans, I imagine the idea that the White House, or even the federal government in general, can improve your Internet access may seem a little fanciful.
But it's not. There are meaningful steps the Obama administration can take in this area that could make a real difference.
Timothy B. Lee had a helpful report on the bigger picture yesterday, noting that the typical American household has a download speed of 10 to 20 megabits per second (Mbps), but some communities have speeds that are up to 100 times faster than that.

[S]ome of these networks were built not by big telecom providers but by municipal governments or publicly-owned electrical utility companies. For example, the city of Chattanooga, TN, has a publicly utility that decided to get into the municipal broadband business in 2007. As a result, households there can now get 1 gigabit (1,000 Mbps) service for just $70 per month. Municipal broadband supporters view Cedar Falls, where Obama is visiting [Wednesday], as another success story. There too, the local public utility company built a municipal broadband network that provides speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second. Gigabit service is expensive -- $135 per month -- but you can also get download speeds of 100 Mbps for $70 per month.

Most U.S. consumers don't know this, because we have no points of comparison, but in many of the world's largest cities, these higher download speeds are already the norm. Americans may have invented the Internet, but Americans also have some of the slowest online access.
If communities like Chattanooga and Cedar Falls have had success with extremely fast broadband, why haven't other municipalities developed their own networks? The main issue is that in much of the country, there are state laws prohibiting cities from taking such steps. Obama wants the FCC to use federal authority to override those state statutes, and the White House also hopes to provide federal resources to help municipalities get started.
A few caveats are in order. For one thing, some cities have tried this route and run into trouble. Indeed, in recent years we've seen Burlington, Vermont, and Provo, Utah, both try to set up municipal broadband and ultimately abandon failed projects.
For that matter, fast broadband doesn't always have to come from the public sector. As the Vox report noted, some telecommunications companies -- including Comcast, msnbc's parent company -- have already made strides in this area, while companies like Google have built one gigabit fiber optic network and are in the process of expanding.
What's more, Obama may be excited about improving consumers' online speeds, but his political rivals are not.

President Barack Obama is delving more deeply into broadband issues as he tries to put his stamp on the nation's Internet policy -- setting up more conflict with congressional Republicans and telecom giants that dominate the industry. [...] Republicans have previously registered their dismay with the idea of FCC acting on community broadband networks. During an appropriations battle last year, all but four of the House's Republican members voted to block the agency from pre-empting state laws.

For Republican lawmakers, the issue is largely ideological -- the public sector is necessarily bad, especially when it competes with the private sector.
That said, one gets the distinct impression that the president, who sees faster Internet speeds as an important economic issue, doesn't much care about Republican opposition. Expect this issue to get a fair amount of attention in next week's national address.