Obama to unveil wireless Internet plan

The Federal Communications Commission is a key regulator of the telecommunications industry and plays an important role in shaping US. technology policy.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 10, 2011; 6:10 AM

President Obama is to unveil a plan Thursday to bring wireless high-speed Internet access to all Americans, a goal the administration says is key to the country's ability to compete globally in the years to come.

In an afternoon speech at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Obama is to explain how he plans to bring mobile broadband connections to 98 percent of the American people in five years, a goal announced last month during his State of the Union address.

The administration has touted the ability of wireless broadband connections to transform local economies and the way schools, doctors and utility companies operate.

"It's an economic story of empowerment," White House Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra said in a conference call with journalists Wednesday. "Rural stakeholders see this as a critical piece to participate in the 21st-century economy."

But some public interest groups say the goal will be difficult to achieve, and they question the amount of money being tapped to build wireless broadband networks, as the high costs of access to the Web through a smartphone or tablet is becoming increasingly out of reach for the poor.

Obama will announce more than $18 billion in federal funds for his wireless goals. About $5 billion currently being used for rural phone subsidies would be repurposed to build cell towers and backhaul networks to towns without mobile broadband services. Fire, police and other emergency responders would get $10.7 billion in federal support to build a mobile Internet network that allows them to communicate and exchange videos and e-mail. An additional $3 billion would go to research and development for wireless technologies that can be used for education, health care and energy.

The administration is betting on the success of radiowave auctions to pay for some of the projects. It hopes to raise about $27.8 billion for the Treasury.

The administration says some of the balance of funds - about $10 billion - would help reduce the federal deficit.

"The initiative he is unveiling is win, win, win," said Jason Furman, deputy director of the National Economic Council.

But the plan has many potential pitfalls, experts say.

Television broadcasters are loath to easily give up valuable airwaves the government is eyeing for commercial wireless providers. They are sitting on what is considered beachfront spectrum that is ideal for powerful Internet connections from a flood of Droids, iPhones and Xoom tablets hitting the market.

Obama and the Federal Communications Commission have devised a plan to create voluntary auctions for those broadcast airwaves and have promised to give television stations some of the proceeds.

Analysts have said the process will require legislation and will be difficult to achieve this year.

"There are so many difficult issues that we do not give this much more than a 50-50 chance this Congress," Stifel Nicolaus tech policy analyst Rebecca Arbogast wrote in a research note.

Furman said estimates of $27.8 billion in auction proceeds don't include estimates for how much broadcasters would get. Those details, Furman said in the conference call with reporters, are not public.

Those details, however, are crucial for broadcasters, said Gordon Smith, president of the National Association of Broadcasters.

"We aren't against the plan but want to make sure this is truly voluntary, and we want to hold harmless those who don't want to participate," Smith said.

Derek Turner, research director for the public interest group Free Press, said the focus should be on ensuring that rural communities will adopt broadband Internet connections over wireless devices. He said that means lower costs for some and more competition among national carriers.

"Spectrum is a valuable public resource, and we need public service commitments from companies in exchange for it," Turner said.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company