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The trickiest part of Obama’s nationwide broadband initiative.

President Obama unveils a new broadband policy initiative at Cedar Falls Utilities on Jan. 14, 2015, in Cedar Falls, Iowa
President Obama unveils a new broadband policy initiative at Cedar Falls Utilities on Jan. 14, 2015, in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

Photo by Brandon Pollock/Getty Images

When you think about hubs for high-speed Internet innovation, Cedar Falls, Iowa, doesn’t usually come to mind.

But the small city received a big boost to its national profile last week when President Barack Obama traveled there to unveil a new broadband policy initiative aimed at spurring high-speed infrastructure investment across the United States. Why did he pick Cedar Falls? Because it’s the only city in Iowa that offers gigabit speeds to consumers. It’s able to do this thanks to Cedar Falls Utilities, a municipally owned network that offers residents high-speed Internet access, which the president highlighted as an important option to help close the digital divide in America. The speech took place during a week of technology-related proposals to preview Tuesday night’s State of the Union address, during which the president mentioned a number of tech topics, including cybersecurity, consumer privacy, and of course, broadband access. “I intend to protect a free and open Internet, extend its reach to every classroom, and every community, and help folks build the fastest networks so that the next generation of digital innovators and entrepreneurs have the platform to keep reshaping our world,” Obama told the nation in his annual address.

By voicing his support for local solutions to address the digital divide, President Obama took a strong, progressive stance on an important broadband policy issue. It’s the second time in two months that Obama has jumped into the weeds on a contentious Internet policy debate: In November, he came out in favor of strong net neutrality rules, urging the Federal Communications Commission to reclassify broadband as a Title II telecommunications service. (In short, if the FCC reclassified broadband, it would be able to treat Internet providers as common carriers and put robust protections against blocking, discrimination, and fees for access or prioritized access in place.) He reiterated that support in the State of the Union while also emphasizing how Americans need “21st-century infrastructure—modern ports, stronger bridges, faster trains, and the fastest Internet.”

During his speech in Cedar Falls, President Obama talked at length about the digital economy as a key piece of America’s broader economic resurgence in the past few years, highlighting how broadband access is now a necessity, not a luxury. But although some form of Internet access is practically ubiquitous today, more than 50 million Americans aren’t online, and for many it’s because they still can’t get affordable next-generation broadband service. The digital divide becomes even more pronounced when you compare access in urban and rural parts of America, or consider the fact that four out of five Americans who aren’t online live below the poverty line. A big part of the problem is competition: Most Americans live in areas where only a single provider offers truly high-speed connectivity (more than 25 megabits per second), and it often comes with a steep price tag. So the White House has outlined a series of steps that the Obama administration is taking to allow more cities and local communities to follow the example of Cedar Falls, where the municipal government has stepped in to help solve the problem.

It’s no secret that the high-speed Internet options in many parts of the United States are slower and more expensive than what’s available in Europe and Asia—even big cities like New York and Los Angeles, which have multiple Internet service provider options, don’t have cheap, fast service. In fact, according to research on international broadband comparisons completed by New America’s Open Technology Institute and cited by the White House, the more interesting cases in the U.S. are often found in unexpected places like Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Kansas City, Missouri, where alternative providers offer gigabit service at reasonable prices. As Obama told the audience in Iowa last week, “Your network is as fast as some of the best networks in the world. There’s Hong Kong, Tokyo, Paris, Cedar Falls. … You are almost a hundred times faster than the national average.” (Disclosure: We work at the Open Technology Institute; New America is a partner with Slate and Arizona State University in Future Tense.)

To help more cities leap into the digital 21st century, the White House proposed a series of initiatives aimed at making investment in broadband networks easier. The Commerce Department is launching a new initiative called BroadbandUSA, offering technical assistance to communities (both online and in-person), hosting regional workshops, and creating tools to help cities plan, finance, build, and operate their own networks. Meanwhile, the Department of Agriculture will help rural providers finance networks through both grant and loan programs geared specifically toward rural areas that are falling behind.

The White House will also convene a Community Broadband Summit in June, bringing together mayors and county commissioners from across the country to talk about ongoing efforts to promote community-driven broadband solutions. These initiatives include the Next Century Cities Coalition, which formed in October 2014 to help communities interested in local broadband networks exchange knowledge and already has a membership of more than 50 cities that have either municipal networks or innovative public-private partnerships like Google Fiber. Obama also mentioned the Gig.U project, which promotes broadband deployment through partnerships with big universities, and the U.S. Ignite challenge, a White House­–led initiative that engages research universities and cities in the quest to develop next generation gigabit apps.

Finally, President Obama called for an end to state laws that make it difficult for communities to build networks. It may sound straightforward, but this is certainly going to be the trickiest part of his proposal to implement. At least 19 states currently have laws on the books that make it more difficult to build local broadband networks, ranging from outright prohibitions to onerous requirements that can discourage cities from pursuing a project. More often than not, these laws are enacted after vigorous lobbying from big telecom and cable companies who don’t like the idea of having to compete with cities on broadband speed and price. So they’ve exerted their influence in state legislatures across the country to make building locally owned networks more difficult—often to the chagrin of local leaders who recognize the importance of bringing high-speed access to their communities.

So what can be done about these state barriers? Last year, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler made it clear that he thinks the laws inhibit broadband competition and harm American consumers. And in July, the cities of Wilson, North Carolina, and Chattanooga officially petitioned the FCC and asked the commission to use its federal authority to promote broadband deployment to pre-empt state laws that prevent them from expanding their existing networks to serve new customers. After soliciting public comment on the issue, the FCC is expected to respond to these petitions next month. And now Obama’s opinion is on the record, too: He asked the director of the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration to send a letter to the FCC last week explaining the administration’s official view.

But ultimately it’s up to the FCC to consider the legal arguments in favor of pre-emption. And as municipal broadband policy has become an increasingly political issue in Washington, D.C., it remains to be seen how Congress might respond if the FCC decides to act.

Nonetheless, by elevating this issue to the national stage, Obama is opening the door for community-driven solutions to address the digital divide. As the debate about federal pre-emption highlights, this is a fairly unique issue for the White House to take up: it’s not too often that the president encourages a very local policy solution in a national address. And as the president acknowledged, it’s ultimately up to the cities and local communities themselves to decide whether and how they want to invest in high-speed broadband networks.

See more of Slate’s State of the Union coverage.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.