This week President Obama opened another front in the struggle between consumers looking for low-cost, high-speed broadband and the ISPs that would prefer to keep calling the shots. Calling for an end to laws in 19 states that prohibit or hamper cities and towns from creating their own municipal broadband, Obama urged the Federal Communications Commission to take action.

FCC Chairman Wheeler shares Obama's concerns and political party, and runs a majority-Democrat FCC. But that doesn't necessarily mean it'll be easy. Immediately after the initiative was announced, detractors were already crying foul, particularly asserting that, once again, the FCC doesn't have the proper authority to carry out Obama's directives.

A Call for Change in the Broadband Landscape

Obama spoke at Cedar Falls Utilities in Iowa within a day of his announcement, praising the municipality's utility for providing 1Gbps fiber optic Internet for only $135 per month. According to Ars Technica, that beats the best Comcast can offer for residential service a miles: their top tier only goes to about half of that speed, and costs $400 per month.

Obama spoke of a high-tier digital divide -- between those with municipal Internet providers (or at the very least, some measure of consumer choice in broadband) and the rest of America. He put the blame squarely, though anonymously, on the largest ISPs like Comcast, stating that "in too many places across America some big companies are doing everything they can to keep out competitors."

The crux of the matter is that in many parts of the country -- 19 states to be exact -- powerful industry groups have lobbied the government to write laws restricting communities' efforts to create municipal broadband utilities, which would rival or (at least in Cedar Falls, Iowa) blow the establishment ISPs out of the water. Ars has details on the 19 states here and other locales that restrict local broadband.

Echoes of the Net Neutrality Debacle

The FCC is an independent agency, and, as we previously reported, Wheeler had already begun looking into the matter, after visiting a similarly successful case of a public ISP in Chattanooga, Tennessee last year.

But the President's putting his weight behind the municipal broadband issue has also increased the heat focused on Wheeler and the FCC from critics -- like former FCC Chairman under President Bush (and current head of the largest cable industry lobbying group) Michael Powell -- who believe the agency doesn't have the proper authority to make such changes to state laws.

A similar criticism was even leveled from within the FCC, though unsurprisingly, the Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai. "As an independent agency, the FCC must make its decisions based on the law, not political convenience," wrote Pai. "And US Supreme Court precedent makes clear that the Commission has no authority to preempt state restrictions on municipal broadband projects. The FCC instead should focus on removing regulatory barriers to broadband deployment by the private sector."

Already anticipating pushback, the White House released a report highlighting the successes municipal broadband and arguing for the President's position this week.