Obama goal: 98 percent of US covered by 4G broadband

Feb 10, 2011 11:51 am | IDG News Service
The president calls for new spectrum auctions to pay for mobile broadband and a public safety network

by Grant Gross

Ninety-eight percent of U.S. residents would have access to high-speed mobile broadband service within five years under a plan that President Barack Obama detailed Thursday.

Obama's proposal, which he alluded to in his State of the Union speech last month, would free up 500MHz of wireless spectrum over a decade by offering to share spectrum auction proceeds with current spectrum holders, including television stations, that have unused airwaves.

The cost of the proposal is likely to raise questions from lawmakers, and some backers of government broadband spending have already raised concerns that the plan would give money and spectrum to large mobile carriers.

The voluntary incentive actions, also advocated in the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's national broadband plan released last March, would raise an estimated US $27.8 billion over the next decade, the White House said in a fact sheet.

Obama would also spend $10.7 billion to build a nationwide broadband network for public safety agencies, including police and fire departments. Some lawmakers and public safety officials have been calling for a national network since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S.

Obama's plan would include a one-time outlay of $5 billion to bring mobile broadband to areas unlikely to be served by commercial providers without subsidies. Another $3 billion of the spectrum auction fees would go to wireless broadband research and development.

The $5 billion for mobile broadband would be focused on 4G technologies, the White House said.

"America's businesses are building out 4G networks to much of the nation," the White House said in a statement. "Nevertheless, absent additional government investment, millions of Americans will not be able to participate in the 4G revolution. This investment will ... extend access from the almost 95 percent of Americans who have 3G wireless services today to at least 98 percent of all Americans gaining access to state-of-the-art 4G high-speed wireless services within five years."

About $9.6 billion of the auction proceeds would go toward the U.S. government's budget deficit, the White House said.

Obama, in a speech at Northern Michigan University, said government funding is needed to bring broadband to rural areas. He compared his mobile broadband proposal to government-supported build-outs of railroads, interstate highways, and the electric grid in past centuries.

"This is a new century," Obama said. "We can't expect tomorrow's economy to take root using yesterday's infrastructure."

While about 90 percent of South Koreans subscribe to broadband service, only about 65 percent of U.S. residents do, he added. "When it comes to high-speed Internet, the lights are still off in a third of our households," he said.

Several groups focused on improving broadband praised the president's plan.