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Obama Spotlights High-Speed Internet Success In Iowa


President Obama visited the city of Cedar Falls, Iowa, this afternoon to tout the benefits of affordable high-speed Internet connections. Cedar Falls is a small city - just 39,000 people - but the president says its speedy Internet traffic puts the city on a par with some of the most connected capitals in the world.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There's Hong Kong, Tokyo, Paris, Cedar Falls.


OBAMA: Right?


OBAMA: That's - that's the company you're keeping.

BLOCK: The president outlined several initiatives designed to help other communities follow Cedar Falls's lead. And that's something he'll talk more about in next week's State of the Union address. NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now to talk about this. And, Scott, the vast majority of Americans already have access to the Internet, right? Why is this an issue for the president?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Well, Melissa, this is no longer a question of whether you're on or off the information superhighway, but how fast your lane is moving and what kind of toll you have to pay. You're right. Most of us have basic broadband now, even my mom. She's one of 45 million Americans who signed up for broadband since President Obama came into office.

BLOCK: Go mom (laughter).

HORSLEY: But there are still big differences in connection speeds. And even for people who have very fast connections, 3 out of 4 have only one provider to choose from, so there's not very much competition. And, oftentimes, that means the prices are quite high.

BLOCK: And according to the president, what is Cedar Falls, Iowa, doing right?

HORSLEY: Well, Cedar Falls is Iowa's first gigabit city, meaning customers there can get download speeds of up to a gigabit per second. That's nearly a hundred times faster than the national average. And Obama says that's about much more than just faster streaming on Netflix.


OBAMA: It's about giving the entrepreneur, the small-business person on Main Street, a chance to compete with the folks out in Silicon Valley or across the globe.

HORSLEY: And what's interesting is Cedar Falls built this high-speed network itself through a city-owned utility. Now, Obama sees that kind of public option as one possible remedy for the lack of competition. Of course, the idea of a public option is controversial in this industry, just as it was during the health care debate. Some commercial broadband companies don't want to compete against the government. And in fact, 19 states have laws on the books limiting the ability of local governments to get into the broadband business.

BLOCK: So, given those obstacles, how does President Obama propose getting around them?

HORSLEY: He's asking the FCC to override those state laws using its powers of preemption. Now, Obama can't force the commission to do that. It's an independent agency. But his hand-picked chairman, Tom Wheeler, has suggested he would be in favor of getting rid of state laws that limit broadband competition.

Wheeler is getting some pushback on that, though, from some Republican senators, and some free-market economists have questioned whether high-speed Internet is really something that gives much of a return for taxpayers. Iowa's Republican governor thinks it does, though. Terry Branstad has been pushing a program to connect every acre in his state. So this is another case where President Obama is taking an idea that a Republican governor has promoted, trying to replicate it nationwide and, in some cases, meeting stiff opposition from Republicans here in Washington.

BLOCK: And, again, this is something the president will be taking up in his State of the Union address next week.

HORSLEY: That's right.

BLOCK: NPR's Scott Horsley, thanks so much.

HORSLEY: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.