Obama touts plan to get wireless Internet to 98 percent of U.S.

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 10, 2011; 10:41 PM

MARQUETTE, MICH. - In this remote snow-swept college town rejuvenated in part by Internet commerce, President Obama outlined a plan Thursday to create similar economic stories through the expansion of super-fast wireless Internet connections.

Speaking at Northern Michigan University, Obama said he would use $18 billion in federal funds to get 98 percent of the nation connected to the Internet on smartphones and tablet computers in five years.

To get there, the federal government will try to bring more radio waves into the hands of wireless carriers to bolster the nation's networks and prevent a jam of Internet traffic. He said he hoped to raise about $27.8 billion by auctioning airwaves now in the hands of television stations and government agencies.

And with that auction money, the government would fund new rural 4G wireless networks and a mobile communications system for fire, police and emergency responders. The remaining funds raised - about $10 billion - would go toward lowering the federal deficit over the next decade. The Congressional Budget Office has said the deficit will climb to $1.5 trillion this year.

First outlined in Obama's State of the Union speech, the plan is part of a push to reshape the nation's infrastructure of deteriorating roadways and manufacturing plants into one with high-speed railways and high-speed Internet networks that the president said are essential for the United States to compete in the global economy.

"To attract the best jobs and newest industries, we've got to out-innovate, out-educate, out-build and out-hustle the rest of the world," Obama said in his speech.

The president chose to visit Marquette because of the town's success in attracting commercial partners such as Intel to build a mobile broadband network based on WiMax technology on the university campus. Northern Michigan University partnered with towns nearby to expand cell towers so elementary schools, police and residents could also access wireless networks fast enough to access streaming videos without a wired connection.

Experts say Obama's plan is ambitious and complicated and relies heavily on the participation of cautious television broadcasters, who are loath to give up their greatest asset: spectrum.

Specifically, $10.7 billion would fund a new public-safety network so first responders from various emergency services can communicate on one system, sending video files and e-mails during disasters and national security threats.

The administration also plans a one-time allotment of $5 billion from a federal phone subsidy to expand wireless broadband in rural areas. About $3 billion would go to a government research program that would develop methods for using mobile Internet access for emerging technologies and for health, education and energy applications.

The plan does not detail how much money it would return to broadcasters who give up airwaves in voluntary "incentive auctions." The administration has promised that those television broadcasters would get a cut of the proceeds but hasn't offered more details.

But broadcasters want more guarantees that auctions will be voluntary.

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