Barack Obama’s Broadband Disconnect

S. Derek Turner Feb 10, 2011

This article was originally published on from

President Barack Obama hits the road Thursday to promote his national wireless initiative, aimed, as he said in his State of the Union address, to “make it possible for businesses to deploy the next generation of high-speed wireless coverage to 98 percent of all Americans.”

Not since Bill Clinton evangelized about benefits of the “information superhighway,” has a president expressed such interest in providing Internet access to all corners of the country.

But those Americans, who have yet to realize the benefits of the Internet revolution — and we, who would like to see more choice and affordability — should be concerned that the White House is focusing on the wrong problem.

Behind Obama’s trip is a complex web of technology policy issues — decisions that could dramatically shape the future of the Internet for generations. At the heart lie choices about how to allocate one of our most valuable natural resources: the public airwaves, or “spectrum,” which carry all forms of wireless communications, from broadcast television to iPhone conversations.

If we get this right, we can ensure that every American has affordable access to top-notch wireless communication services. But if we don’t, we’ll sell our future short, locking in today’s uncompetitive wireless market and stranding tens of millions of Americans on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Before we make these crucial decisions, we need a clear understanding of what Obama is proposing, and what his goal is.

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.

Underpinning this easily achievable goal is a proposed giveaway of a massive slice of our valuable public airwaves to wireless broadband companies. Though they’ve done a good job convincing Washington politicians there is a “looming spectrum crisis” that requires the American people to surrender this resource with no questions asked, supporting evidence is thin. There’s just no reason we should hand over our airwaves without getting something equally valuable in return.

Just this week, the Federal Communications Commission proposed spending billions to fund deployment of broadband networks to the 20 million Americans living in areas with no service at all.

But the president’s message Thursday, coming on the heels of this costly proposal, highlights a disconnect in our policy thinking. Why should taxpayers fund the build-out of broadband networks, when the government could just require that profitable wireless companies pay for it — in exchange for use of public airwaves?

Cable companies were required to serve entire communities in exchange for access to public rights of way. Why are wireless companies any different?

Though freeing up public airwaves for wireless broadband would bring needed competition to a market dominated by Verizon and AT&T, it would not address challenges facing rural America, where lack of access to the same kind of fast wired broadband connections hinders economic growth and opportunity.

Everyone agrees when the president says there is great promise in wireless connectivity. But our most important public policy challenge is not expanding coverage — it’s increasing adoption of broadband, wired or wireless.

Wireless companies don’t lack incentives to build their networks. But many consumers do lack the means to adopt expensive broadband services. Less than a third of Americans subscribe to mobile broadband service, while just two-thirds have wired broadband at home.

So to really live up to Obama’s aspirations and help America “win the future,” the government must do more than subsidize companies to build networks or give them dominion over public airwaves. It must help the unconnected get on board with broadband.

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.

The president set the goals for public benefits from public airwaves. Now Congress and the FCC need to get us there – by tackling the many wireless competition problems; protecting the Internet as an open communications platform, and smartly promoting adoption, not padding profits.

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