CEDAR FALLS — If residents and businesses in Cedar Falls, Iowa can have 1-gigabit per second Internet service rivaling top speeds around the world — and spur competition among providers — so can any community in America, President Barack Obama said during a visit Wednesday.
Obama was in Iowa's first "gigabit city" to announce plans for federal aid for broadband expansion, as well as reduced restrictions for community-owned broadband networks. The president spoke in a warehouse of Cedar Falls Utilities, a public-owned company which provides broadband and cable in the Cedar Valley.
"There's Hong Kong, Tokyo, Paris, Cedar Falls," Obama said. "All right, that is the company you are keeping. You are almost 100 times faster than the national average, and you can log on for about the same price as a fully loaded cable bundle.
"What you are showing is here in America you don't have to be the biggest community to do really big things," he said during a 20-minute speech before about 200 people.
Obama called for increasing access to affordable, reliable high-speed Internet around the country by supporting public broadband efforts similar to Cedar Falls, Chattanooga, Tenn., and Kansas City, Mo. Communities should be able to build community networks if they choose, he said. It was a preview of what he will discuss in his State of the Union address next week, he said.
Obama is also pushing for net neutrality, which aims to prevent single gatekeepers to the web. Obama said big companies are doing everything they can to keep out competition, but that is going to be change.
"What happens when there's no competition? You are stuck on hold, watching the loading icon spin, waiting, waiting and waiting," he said. "Meanwhile, you are wondering why your rates keep getting jacked up and your service doesn't seem to be improving."
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Obama said Cedar Falls residents have something many Americans don't: choices. The Cedar Valley has access to Mediacom and CenturyLink in addition to Cedar Falls Utility.
He said about half of Americans in rural areas don't have access to the highest level of broadband, and millions only have one provider to choose from.
"Today, high-speed broadband is not a luxury; it's a necessity," the president said. "This isn't about streaming Netflix or scrolling through your Facebook newsfeed. This is about helping local businesses grow and prosper and compete in a global economy.”
Obama is urging the Federal Communications Commission to help end state laws restricting communities from providing broadband access to citizens — which exist in 19 states — and wants to remove federal regulations that block broadband build-out and competition.
The president also proposes providing financial and technical support to communities seeking to deploy a broadband network, and he wants to expand a national coalition of local and college leaders wanting high speed broadband for their community or campus.
Chris Lilly, 48, a warehouse supervisor at Cedar Falls Utilities, attended the private event. He said many of the roughly 180 employees were honored by learning their service stacked up with much larger cities around the world.
Local city council member Dave Wieland, 73, said there's community pride in CFU and that because it's community-owned, the incentive is to keep prices low and services high.
"I hope this attention draws a lot of businesses to our area," Wieland said.
The private sector has voiced opposition to expanding broadband in the public sector.
“President Barack Obama is risking the success we have witnessed by advocating for the reclassification of broadband as a Title II public utility — unprecedented government interference that would stifle private investment, hinder innovation and undermine the growth of the Internet,” according to a statement from Broadband for America, a coalition of Internet and cable providers, and non-profits seeking expansion of Internet access.
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Mediacom, Iowa's largest provider, released a statement saying it was "deeply concerned" about Obama's remarks, noting its $2.8 billion private investment in building out its fiber-optic network.
"CFU is a municipal utility that leverages its government-conferred monopoly over electric, water, and gas service to unfairly compete with private enterprises for cable television and high-speed Internet customers," the company said in a statement. "The President’s remarks, combined with the selection of CFU as the venue for his speech, clearly show that the White House wants to waste taxpayer dollars to supplant our Nation’s private sector broadband providers with government-owned utility companies."
Obama’s visit comes on the heels of Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad’s Condition of the State speech, in which he pushed legislation to expand broadband across Iowa, particularly in rural areas.
“We appreciate that President Barack Obama recognizes Governor Branstad’s work to make Iowa a leader in connecting its citizens, main street businesses, schools, and agriculture to high-speed broadband Internet,” Branstad spokesman Jimmy Centers said.
The Republican National Committee was critical of Obama's plans.
“We’ve heard this all before and despite billions of dollars in spending and countless campaign promises, President Obama still has nothing to show on expanding rural broadband," RNC spokesman Michael Short said.