By Sara Wyant
© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.
MARQUETTE, MICH.  Feb. 10 – President Obama announced an ambitious plan to get 98% of the U.S. connected to high-speed Internet and create new economic opportunities in many remote, rural areas. Speaking at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Michigan, a city where local businesses have been able to grow as a result of Internet access, the president borrowed a line from the movie “Field of Dreams.”

“If we build it, they will come,” he said, referring to new jobs that could be created with access to the Internet.

The president first unveiled this goal in his State of the Union address, as part of his focus on “winning the future.”  In snowy Michigan today, he noted that “connecting a country of our size has never been easy,” and recalled past presidential efforts to encourage the buildout of railroads, rural electricity and the federal highway system.

“FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) set up the Rural Electrification Administration - to help bring power to vast swaths of America that were still in darkness. Companies said that building lines to rural areas would be too costly. So Americans in these towns simply went without refrigeration or running water,” the president recalled.”Once power lines were laid down, electricity flowed to farms across the country and transformed millions of lives. When a Texas family returned home the first night their farmhouse was hooked up, a woman thought it was on fire. "No mama," said her daughter, "the lights are on."

Providing broadband across the U.S. has long been supported by both Democrats and Republicans. Former President George W. Bush promoted a similar goal for high-speed Internet access on March 26, 2004, calling for “universal, affordable access for broadband technology by the year 2007.” Democrats in Congress devoted about $7 billion in broadband spending as part of the 2009 stimulus package.

But with a renewed focus on deficit reduction, some GOP lawmakers are saying it is time to step back and reconsider.  The House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing today to examine the approximately $7 billion already allocated for broadband services in the stimulus.

“Before we target any more of our scarce taxpayer dollars for broadband, it is critical to examine whether the money already being spent is having an impact, as well as how we can minimize waste, fraud, and abuse. Let’s ensure our resources are being used wisely. After all, even without these billions in taxpayer subsidies, the private sector has already deployed broadband to 95% of the country and two-thirds of the country subscribes, according to the FCC’s National Broadband Plan,” said Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) in a statement.

To enable smart phones and other computers to gain access to high-speed Internet, President Obama wants to auction off part of the spectrum that is currently held by private entities, but it’s unclear how much money those auctions could generate. In order to make more high-speed access available, the President plans to free up 500 MHz of spectrum by encouraging legislation that would allow the FCC to conduct “voluntary incentive auctions” that enable current spectrum holders to realize a portion of auction revenues if they choose to participate. The majority of the freed up spectrum would be auctioned for licensed mobile broadband, raising a projected $27.8 billion over the next decade, according to the White House. Nearly $10 billion of spectrum auction revenue will be devoted to deficit reduction.

Other components of President Obama’s plan:

• Investment in rural areas: The President’s Budget supports the 4G buildout in rural areas through a one-time $5 billion investment.  This investment, to be managed by the FCC, will help catalyze universal service reform to provide access to higher-speed wireless and wired broadband, dovetail with the need for public safety to have a wireless network available in rural areas, and extend access from the almost 95% of Americans who have 3G wireless services today to at least 98% of all Americans gaining access to state-of-the-art 4G high-speed wireless services within five years.  Extending access to high-speed wireless not only provides a valuable service to Americans living in those areas—access to medical tests, online courses, and applications that have not yet been invented—but also catalyzes economic growth by enabling consumers and businesses living in those areas to participate in the 21st century economy.

• A Wireless Innovation (WIN) Fund to Help Drive Innovation. This $3 billion fund will advance our economic growth and competitiveness goals, supporting key technological developments that will enable and take advantage of the 4G rollout and pave the way for new technologies.  The WIN Fund will support basic research, experimentation and testbeds, and applied development in a number of areas, including public safety, education, energy, health, transportation, and economic development.

• Develop and Deploy A Nationwide, Interoperable Wireless Network For Public Safety. 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.  To seize that opportunity, President Obama is calling for an investment of $10.7 billion to ensure that our public safety benefits from these new technologies: $3.2 billion to reallocate the “D Block” (which is a band of spectrum that would be reserved and prioritized for public safety and not auctioned as called for under existing law); $7 billion to support the deployment of this network; and $500 million from the WIN Fund for R&D and technological development to tailor the network to meet public safety requirements.  This investment, in coordination with the investment in rural buildout, will ensure that the rollout of 4G in rural areas serves the needs of public safety and the broader community.

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