Thinking Tech

The President's universal Internet plan, explained

Posting in Government

Debuted in the last State of the Union address, President Obama's high-speed wireless Internet initiative caught plenty of peoples' attention. Now, we know how the plan will actually work.

For a passive viewer, President Obama's brief mention of a plan to expand next-generation wireless Internet access to the vast majority of America's citizens may not have stood out from rest of the 7000+ word speech. But from the technologically inclined, it garnered a mass double-take. Is he really talking about universal wireless Internet access? Is that a promise? Here's what he said:

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.

Today, we finally know what this really means. In a speech in front of a small crowd in Marquette, Michigan, President Obama laid out a more detailed vision for the expansion of wireless coverage across the country, and his administration released materials outlining how it would work, how much it will (or rather, should) cost, and what it could mean for the country. It's a lot to take in, and it's predictably couched in marketing and political jargon, so here's what you need to know:

  • It's not a government ISP. Critics can be partially forgiven for jumping to such a conclusion, but the National Wireless Initiative is not a state-run ISP, or anything like one. It's a plan to encourage the spread of high-speed wireless Internet access by enabling and encouraging--and to extent, subsidizing--private providers' preexisting efforts.
  • It's about infrastructure, not access. The use of the word "access" in the President's speech and his office's press materials implies that this initiative is intended to literally provide citizens with high-speed "4G" wireless Internet access. This is not the case. The 98% figure refers to how many people will live in areas where 4G wireless access is available as a product for either home or mobile use, from an ISP or wireless carrier. It's about expanding infrastructure, not directly extending access to users.
  • It will actually make money. (Well, sort of.) For most citizens, the plan is best understood as separate initiatives: a one-time, $5 billion investment in the spread of wireless infrastructure to underserved areas; and a wireless spectrum auction, which should raise $27.8 billion over the next ten years. The second plan depends on broadcasters voluntary giving up sections of the wireless spectrum to be used for Internet service. The existing spectrum licensees will get a cut of the auction price as an incentive for freeing up their respective sections of the 500MHz that the President hopes to be able to reallocate. These auctions are likely to take place whether or not the President is granted the $5 billion he wants for infrastructure investment, so it's a bit disingenuous to present these two initiatives in the same breath; they complement one another, but they aren't strictly codependent.
  • There's a precedent for this kind of thing. How will this $5 billion dollars be spent? By reforming and utilizing the avenues established by the Universal Service Fund, an FCC subsidiary created in the late 1990s to encourage the expansion of so-called "advanced telecommunications services" to underserved areas. (While this has generally been an infrastructure-focused program, it's worth noting that it has also provided subsidies to individuals for low income families for telephone service installation and bills.)
  • There's a national security angle, of course. Touted more quietly but nonetheless important (and hugely expensive) is a proposal to build out a wireless network for security purposes. Says the White House: "The 9/11 Commission noted that our homeland security is vulnerable, in part, due to the lack of interoperable wireless communication among first responders.  The rollout of 4G high speed wireless services provides a unique opportunity to deploy such a system in conjunction with the commercial infrastructure already being developed and deployed." This will cost an estimated $10.7 billion, and allocate a specific block of the wireless spectrum for use for public safety, first responders, etc. This figure is included in the administration's estimate for a $9.6 billion deficit reduction, and is theoretically provided for by the aforementioned spectrum auctions.

Image courtesy of the White House/Pete Souza

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John Herrman

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Herrman is a freelance writer based in New York City. He is also contributing editor at Gizmodo. He holds a degree from the University of Edinburgh. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure