President Barack Obama speaks at Cedar Falls Utilities, Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015, in Cedar Falls, Iowa. President Obama is once again challenging major cable and telephone companies by encouraging the Federal Communications Commission to pre-empt state laws that stifle competition for high-speed Internet service. Charlie Neibergall/AP
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President Barack Obama wants cities and towns to be able to offer high speed Internet service to their residents. Now the nation’s top telecommunications regulator may help that goal along.

The Federal Communications Commission said it will vote next month on requests by two southern cities, Chattanooga, Tennessee and Wilson, North Carolina, asking it to override state laws restricting the ability of local governments to provide broadband access.

The Center for Public Integrity first reported on the requests in July. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler appears amenable to the requests.

Wheeler has repeatedly said he would pre-empt state laws that ban or place barriers on cities that want to build or expand broadband networks if he were asked to do so.

Now Obama has weighed in. In a speech in Cedar Falls, Iowa, this week the president said he intends to help promote municipal broadband in areas that are underserved by the major telecommunications companies.

“If there are state laws in place that prohibit or restrict these community- based broadband efforts,” Obama said, “we should do everything we can to push back against those old laws.”

The change won’t happen without a fight.

Telecommunications giants including Comcast, AT&T and Time Warner Cable have spent millions of dollars to lobby state legislatures, influence state elections and buy research to try to stop the spread of public Internet services that often offer faster speeds at cheaper rates. AT&T alone spent more than $250,000 on lobbying in Tennessee alone last year, the Center for Public Integrity reported in August.

The Center’s report illustrated how municipal broadband service, especially in rural communities, can help boost businesses and create jobs. It contrasted the experience of Tullahoma, Tennessee, which has a strong publicly-owned broadband network, with Fayetteville, North Carolina, which was thwarted from allowing its residents to tap into the city’s gigabit broadband network by state law.

Tullahoma’s job market has thrived, while Fayetteville’s has stagnated in recent years.

There are currently 20 states that have laws restricting the ability of municipalities to offer Internet service.

Obama intends to make the case for allowing cities and towns to decide for themselves whether to build out municipal broadband networks in his State of the Union address on January 20.

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