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Obama: This federal council will jumpstart broadband

President Barack Obama issues a memorandum to bring 25 federal agencies together to help encourage private industry to deploy broadband.

President Barack Obama is making good on his promise to bring more broadband to Americans.

President Barack Obama makes remarks supporting municipal broadband deployments in January in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

On Monday he signed a memorandum formally creating the Broadband Opportunity Council, a federal initiative aimed at increasing broadband investment from private industry while also reducing barriers to broadband deployment and adoption.

The new council will include 25 federal agencies and departments that will work with private industry to understand how the federal government can help communities increase broadband investment and reduce barriers to deployment. The council will be co-chaired by the US departments of Commerce and Agriculture. The council will report back to Obama, within 150 days, with the steps each agency will take to advance these goals, including specific regulatory actions or budget proposals.

The council is tasked with giving people more access to broadband, which Obama sees as a necessary tool that will provide critical economic growth and competitiveness in the US. In spite of efforts at the federal, state and local level, he said in his memorandum that too many Americans, especially those in rural areas, are not getting adequate access to broadband.

"Access to high-speed broadband is no longer a luxury; it is a necessity for American families, businesses, and consumers, " Obama said in his memorandum. "The federal government has an important role to play in developing coordinated policies to promote broadband deployment and adoption, including promoting best practices, breaking down regulatory barriers, and encouraging further investment."

He pointed to a report from the Federal Communications Commission that indicates more than 50 million Americans cannot purchase a wired broadband connection capable of delivering download speeds of 25 Mbps, the mark that the FCC has defined as the minimum for adequate broadband service. Only 29 percent of Americans can choose from more than one service provider at that speed.

Obama first introduced this idea in January, when he traveled to Cedar Falls, Iowa, to announce his plan to promote a public-private effort to help more Americans get access to speedier broadband.

As part of this new push, Obama urged the FCC to strike down state laws to ensure communities could build or expand their own 1 gigabit-per-second networks, which offer downloads 100 times faster than conventional connections.

"Broadband access is a critical component of the infrastructure America needs to compete in the 21st century global economy," Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker said in a statement. "We look forward to working with our federal partners, industry, and other stakeholders to make it easier for communities across the country to have easy access to fast, affordable broadband technology."

The federal council is just the latest initiative from the White House on broadband. In November, Obama stepped into the debate over an open Internet by publicly backing the concept that broadband should be regulated like a utility. His support helped the FCC push through the reclassification of broadband as a telecommunications service under the 1934 Communications Act, which would put it under utility-style rules that ensured fair and equal treatment of Internet traffic.

For broadband providers, the federal council serves as a mixed message when it comes to infrastructure investment. Companies such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon have complained that the new regulation are potentially too onerous, and that the legal challenges that it faces creates an environment of uncertainty that would have a negative effect on investment.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has said he does not buy into this line of thinking and points to the spectrum auction completed in January, which raised a record-breaking $45 billion in revenue for the government, as proof that wireless broadband carriers are still eager to invest in expanding new networks.

In a fact sheet circulated Monday, the Obama administration also highlighted the auction as a positive move toward getting broadband coverage to consumers. It also noted that the wireless operators have already reached a goal set by Obama in 2011 for them to make 4G LTE wireless service available to 98 percent of Americans. The administration said Monday that this goal was reached two years ahead of schedule.

But Brad Gillen, executive vice president for CTIA, the industry trade group for wireless operators, said that the reason the wireless industry was able to reach this goal so quickly was because of the light regulatory touch the previous FCC had invoked.

"We fully support the White House's laudable efforts to reduce barriers to additional wireless deployment, and look forward to working with the Broadband Opportunity Council to expand broadband deployment even further," he said in a statement. "However, the Administration's findings represent a stark contrast with the FCC's continued unwillingness to recognize that mobile broadband is being deployed on a timely and reasonable basis and the FCC's recent decision to walk away from the light-touch, mobile-specific approach - and decades of consensus - that set the stage for mobile investment and helped meet the Administration's own wireless broadband goal"

He called on Obama and the FCC to "actively support a bipartisan legislative effort that enshrines open Internet protections once and for all by statute."

Representatives from AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast weren't immediately available for comment.

Policymakers who see partnerships between the public and private sectors as a key to the deployment of more broadband said the involvement of the federal government is critical.

"Over the last several years, dozens of cities have accelerated the deployment of world-leading broadband networks by reforming local policies that add unnecessary costs to construction," said Blair Levin, who spearheaded the the FCC's efforts to write the 2010 National Broadband Plan and who has been working to bring private industry and public officials together to build high-speed broadband networks. "It's great, as called for in the National Broadband Plan, that federal agencies are joining the movement to reform policies to help American communities have the best broadband in the world."

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) also applauded Obama's efforts.

"The administration and I share a commitment to expanding the availability of broadband in communities around the country, and the president's actions today are an important step forward," he said in a statement.

UPDATED 3 p.m. PT:This story was updated with a comment from CTIA.

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