Municipal broadband development is a local job, with or without presidential backing

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Good words, but no new money.

Community-based broadband networks got a ringing endorsement from U.S. president Barack Obama yesterday. You can watch the speech here, or read the transcript prepared by the white house press office.

The question now is whether the speech kicked off a serious policy initiative or just served as the headline issue of the day. It’s very possible this speech or the upcoming state of the union address will be the last we’ll hear about community broadband from the president until he holds a promised summit meeting with mayors and county supervisors in June, which is 1 of the 5 action items that the white house published on Tuesday and Obama reiterated yesterday.

Of the rest, 3 are administrative: implement the rural broadband programs in last year’s farm bill, organise a technical assistance program for local broadband projects and create a federal equivalent of the California Broadband Council, charged with cutting red tape. The farm bill programs are particularly important, since money is attached. Not much by Californian standards, but it’s there and that’s what counts.

The final item is asking the FCC to preempt state laws that limit local governments’ ability to pursue broadband projects. It’s a issue that’s already under consideration, and it’s a safe bet that the FCC decision will go the way Obama wants – he wouldn’t have asked publicly if he didn’t have confidence that the answer will be yes. But even so, it’s not a slam dunk – there are serious legal issues involved and federal courts will have the final say.

Yesterday’s speech was a very positive and useful step. The president is a powerful ally and his support will help local officials and advocates make the policy case for greater investment in broadband infrastructure and fewer barriers to building it. It got a little bit easier yesterday, but that’s not the same as making it easy. The hard work still has to done locally.