Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Obama Wants a Wireless Broadband Network for Everyone

Talk about technology was sprinkled widely throughout President Obama’s State of the Union address last night. He mentioned Google and Facebook in the same breath as Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers. I don’t think it’s the first time Google has been mentioned in the State of the Union, but it is certainly the first time for Facebook.

After reminding the nation that “South Korean homes now have greater Internet access than we do,” he went on to call for a national wireless broadband network.

Within the next five years, we’ll make it possible for businesses to deploy the next generation of high-speed wireless coverage to 98 percent of all Americans. This isn’t just about–(applause)–this isn’t about faster Internet or fewer dropped calls. It’s about connecting every part of America to the digital age. It’s about a rural community in Iowa or Alabama where farmers and small business owners will be able to sell their products all over the world. It’s about a firefighter who can download the design of a burning building onto a handheld device; a student who can take classes with a digital textbook; or a patient who can have face-to-face video chats with her doctor.

It’s the latest attempt by Obama to try to solve the difficult problem of broadband penetration in America. In many places, most of them rural areas with low population density, cable and telco companies can’t make back the investments required to build out network infrastructure, and so they don’t build at all. As I’ve said here before, for Americans in those places, the options for participating in the digital culture the rest of us take for granted are few, and it often means the difference between participating and not in so much of the daily discourse that occurs online.

Part of the answer lies in taking back some radio spectrum that’s used for other things. In June, Obama signed a memorandum calling for the freeing up of certain radio frequency spectrum in the 500 MHz range. This is a block of spectrum largely owned by TV broadcasters for free over-the-air TV transmission. Broadcasters have been under pressure–and so far they are resisting–to voluntarily give those licenses up so that the spectrum can be re-auctioned off.

Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, essentially telegraphed that this is going to be the commission’s major policy priority in comments at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month. He has said he’d like to offer broadcasters incentives to give up their spectrum, but this would require a new law passed by Congress, and those in Congress have their own ideas about how this should be done. You can expect a lot of debate about this in Washington this year, but probably not a lot of progress.

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