Problems With Obama's Plan to Get 98% of Americans Wireless

It's a nice idea, but it won't be easy

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During a trip to Michigan on Thursday, President Obama provided details about how he plans to provide high-speed wireless Internet access to 98 percent of Americans within five years while simultaneously reducing the deficit by about $10 billion over the next 10 years. How does he plan on doing this?

The administration wants to make 500 megahertz of wireless airwaves, or "spectrum," available for mobile broadband over the next decade--a period that's sure to see a proliferation of web-enabled mobile devices--while investing in spreading wireless to rural areas that private companies often leave in the dark, rolling out a wireless network for public safety agencies, and developing emerging wireless technologies. The government estimates it could raise $27.8 billion during that time in part by auctioning off 120 megahertz of re-purposed spectrum, with around $10 billion of that revenue going toward cutting the deficit.

The White House is characterizing the initiative as a "win win win" in that it expands wireless access, curbs the deficit, and bolsters public safety, according to Reuters. But there is a possibility that the White House could lose lose lose in achieving its goal. Here are some of the obstacles that stand in the way of the proposal:


Jeff Mason at Reuters points out that the Federal Communication Commission can't conduct a spectrum auction without Congress passing legislation, he notes, and "there could be resistance from lawmakers if they fear the auctions could apply undue pressure to broadcasters in their districts to give up spectrum." He adds if the auction takes place, television broadcasters would need to voluntarily give away their spectrum in exchange for a cut of the auction proceeds.

Television Broadcasters

Stacey Higginbotham at GigaOM explains that broadcasters--especially those in big, urban markets--may be reluctant to relinquish valuable spectrum, which some are using to develop their own mobile television services. The FCC argues that stations with low ratings in big markets will be interested in making money by selling a portion of their airwaves.


The White House isn't thinking enough about how to get people to adopt wireless, argues S. Derek Turner at The Indypendent.

Most people don’t realize that more than 98 percent of Americans live in areas where wireless broadband service is already available. The companies that control this infrastructure are well on their way to upgrading to next-generation mobile technology--without any help from the government ...

People are likely to adopt wired and wireless broadband in massive numbers if it’s affordable. For that, we need competitive markets in service, content, applications and devices: 96 percent of Americans have, at best, a choice between just two wired broadband providers--and AT&T and Verizon control more than two-thirds of the wireless market.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.