Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Obama's Wireless Broadband Plan: 98 Percent or Bust

Remember how President Obama said in the State of the Union address last month that he wanted to build a broadband network that would reach 98 percent of the U.S. within five years? Today he explained how he’d like to get it done.

The president flew to Michigan to deliver his remarks on the subject and saw a demonstration of WiMAX technology in use at Northern Michigan University.

Obama hopes to build this network with money raised from two key sources, thankfully neither involving any additional direct burden on taxpayers. First he’d like to make changes to the Universal Service Fund, which has historically been used to help connect remote and rural areas to the telephone network. Some $5 billion from that fund that currently goes to subsidize phones in rural areas will instead be put to work building wireless towers and other related infrastructure in places where such networks don’t yet exist. Police, firefighters and other emergency workers would get access to their own wireless network built with another $10 billion. Yet another $3 billion would go toward research and development on other ways to use wireless networks.

That’s almost $19 billion. Where will it come from? Spectrum auctions. The administration hopes to raise nearly $28 billion by re-auctioning some of the spectrum currently held by TV broadcasters but no longer actively used. (About $10 billion would go toward reducing the deficit.) The rub is that TV broadcasters are resisting pressure from the president and the Federal Communications Commission to voluntarily give that spectrum back. Under the plan being considered, broadcasters would get some portion of the proceeds from the auctions–no word yet on how much.

These give-backs are supposedly going to be voluntary, and one priority the National Association of Broadcasters hopes to see in this plan is a provision that allows broadcasters to opt out of the process without penalty. This suggests that the administration will get some spectrum back in some places, but not in others, creating the potential for a sort of inconsistent patchwork. More on the particulars of the plan here.

Building out the Internet is certainly a laudable goal. As I’ve written before, an Internet connection is now as essential to modern life as electric lights and running water. Places without adequate network coverage are essentially locked out of participating in the economic and cultural discourse that so many of us take for granted every day.

Consider for a moment how much of the recent political campaigns was conducted on the Web, and then ask yourself how well-informed a voter you’d be without relatively fast access to the Web day in and day out. As the Communications Workers of America pointed out in a recent study, roughly one American in three doesn’t have access to broadband at home; some choose not to have it, but other want it but can’t get it.

I thought about this a bit when I read that a new undersea fiber-optic Internet cable had been laid to improve access to the Internet in Cuba, courtesy of an international aid program paid for by Venezuela. As it stands right now, Internet connections there are handled via slow and cumbersome satellite links, and so only about three percent of the population has access to the Web. The new cable will allow connections 3,000 times faster than currently possible.

Say what you will about the ultimate political aims of Venezuela in financing the cable, or what controls the Cuban government will likely impose upon those who use it, but you can’t deny that any improvement in getting people in Cuba connected to the Internet is a good thing. Who knows what changes a better connection might bring?

Here my thoughts turn once again to Egypt and the changes unfolding there. During the past several weeks we’ve seen the power of the Internet brought to bear in Egypt, where what’s been widely called the Facebook Revolution seems on the cusp of toppling President Hosni Mubarak. It was Mubarak who shocked the world by cutting his country off from the Internet, and it so irritated people both inside and outside Egypt that they banded together to find ways around the digital curtain he tried to erect around his borders. The same chain of events has turned a humble Google marketing exec into a national hero.

It’s at moments like this that I’m struck by the immeasurable power of the Internet to be turned into a powerful force for good and for the empowerment of people in all walks of life, with better information, better communication, more economic choices. Without passing judgment on Obama’s proposal–it’s likely to spark a fight with congressional Republicans and with various constituencies in the broadcasting and telecom industries–it’s hard not to agree with his intent. It’s unfortunate that in 2011 the country that gave birth to the Internet hasn’t yet found a way to extend its many benefits to every sector of its population.

Here are a few highlights from the president’s speech today, courtesy of the Associated Press.

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