Obama: End laws that protect big ISPs, so Americans can get faster, better broadband

The president is pushing for the end of laws that protect larger, established Internet providers from competition, which he says harms the rollout of rural broadband services.

(Image: White House/YouTube)

With his political legacy in mind, President Obama wants to leave office fixing the American internet, rather than overseeing a federal agency tasked with breaking it.

In a speech Wednesday, Obama announced a wave of proposals that aim to make the broadband market in the U.S. fairer and more accessible, while spurring on greater choice for consumers and competition for companies.

The president called for an end to laws in 19 states, which he said prevent towns and cities from starting up their own high-speed Internet services, while "protecting incumbent providers from competition."

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Obama said these laws were written by interest groups and by lawyers representing major Internet providers AT&T, Comcast, and Time Warner Cable, in order to block competition. These laws have "harmed" broadband access in some of the more rural parts of the country, Obama said. But where towns and cities have succeeded in creating municipally-owned broadband services, the larger Internet providers have improved their own services, a White House report says.

Obama will ask the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to back plans to bring to an end those laws, effectively helping cities build their own alternatives to major Internet providers. Loans will also be provided to cities to help introduce high-speed Internet access to the more rural, under-served areas.

In prepared remarks, privacy group the Electronic Frontier Foundation said the president "gets it," adding that the wider debate of net neutrality is "a competition problem."

The proposals aim to build on Obama's wider net neutrality plan, which he announced last November, urging the FCC to adopt measures that would classify the Internet as a utility.

The FCC has the power to do that under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, which would categorize broadband services as a basic public necessity, like water and electricity.

In making broadband services a utility, the president hopes to make the Internet fairer for Americans, and ensure it wouldn't fall into a "two-tiered" system, where some users would get faster speeds and better service than others, with no site blocking or bandwidth throttling. Critics, including the Internet providers themselves, say that high-bandwidth users, like Netflix and other streaming services, should have to pay for the chunk of network they use.

Obama weighed in to give his support on the overwhelming side of consumers after the FCC's proposed rules proved contentious with consumers.

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FCC chairman Tom Wheeler was said to be "visibly frustrated" by the president's remarks days later, at an event with executives from Google and Yahoo present. Wheeler reportedly reminded the executives that the FCC was not beholden to the White House, describing it as an "independent agency."

Despite the apparent friction between Wheeler and the president, he told CNET News that the two were "never... pulling on opposite ends of the rope."

The FCC is set to vote on the net neutrality rules in late February.

Obama's latest proposals are one of many tech-focused elements of the State of the Union address on January 20, an annual speech that is seen by more than 30 million people.

The president spent this week dropping previews of what Americans will hear during that speech, including proposals that aim to tackle the ongoing cybersecurity threat the government has warned of.

Obama earlier this week previewed a not-so-new proposal, taken from what critics argued was a controversial 2013 bill in Congress, which the White House previously threatened to veto. The cybersecurity information-sharing bill aims to allow tech companies to share data in order to prevent cyberattacks.