Correction to This Article
This article about the Obama administration's call for federal regulators to open up more airwaves for wireless Internet access incorrectly described Mark Cooper as the president of the Consumers Federation of America. The organization is called the Consumer Federation of America, and he is its director of research.

White House calls for regulators to increase wireless Internet access in U.S.

By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Obama administration called Monday for federal regulators to provide more spectrum for wireless high-speed Internet services, saying mobile broadband would bring competition to DSL, cable and fiber broadband providers.

In comments and a letter filed with the Federal Communications Commission, the White House's technology policy arm and the antitrust division of the Justice Department said that the current marketplace for broadband Internet services is not competitive enough and that wireless Internet access could serve as a more affordable way to bring service to areas that are not connected.

"Given the potential of wireless services to reach underserved areas and to provide an alternative to wireline broadband providers in other areas, the [FCC] Commission's primary tool for promoting broadband competition should be freeing up spectrum," Justice said in its comments.

The comments by Justice and a similar letter from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration come as more and more people have begun using BlackBerrys, iPhones and other Web-enabled phones. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has warned of a looming cellphone crisis because current networks are not robust enough to handle what is expected to be an explosion of demand for mobile data services.

Specifically, Justice said the FCC should shift "underutilized" spectrum to wireless carriers. But the agency warned that, when distributing spectrum, the FCC should consider how the largest telecommunications companies could further concentrate their market power through an auction.

Justice noted that the largest providers -- AT&T and Verizon -- offer both wireless and wireline Internet services and might have an incentive to promote fixed wireline services over wireless.

"If wireline providers charge more for service packages that involve greater speeds and/or higher usage limits, consumers purchasing these packages may not enjoy the benefits of competition from wireless broadband, or may do so only indirectly to the extent that consumers as a whole display a willingness to substitute slower wireless service for faster wireline service," the agency said in its filing.

The comments were submitted as part of the FCC's push to bring affordable broadband services to all U.S. homes. Obama has made universal access to a high-speed Internet the cornerstone of his technology agenda. And Congress has mandated that the FCC, an independent agency, come up with a plan by February.

Consumer groups, which have been critical of the FCC's approach on broadband, said the comments by Justice and the NTIA indicate the administration agrees there are not enough options for Internet users.

"They are going out of their way to say competition is important and that there isn't enough and this is a new approach," said Mark Cooper, president of the Consumers Federation of America. "The FCC has been looking at spectrum as the great savior, but then they have to answer the question of what happens if spectrum gets captured by incumbent wireline companies."

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