During last night's State Of The Union address, President Obama touched briefly on the nation's broadband goals -- specifically our high speed wireless ambitions. Broadband justly tends to get only fleeting lip service when there are so many more pressing issues to address (unemployment, war), and last night's speech was certainly no exception. What the President did say about wireless was that the government's goal is to "make it possible for businesses" to deploy high-speed wireless coverage to 98% of all Americans within the next five years. The full speech is hosted on YouTube
for those interested, but here is the pertinent bit:
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.
What immediately struck me as odd when looking at news coverage
of Obama's wireless ambitions is that you would be hard pressed to find one news outlet that could be bothered to note how close to that goal we already are. In fact, it seems rather important to note that according to the government's own data, we already technically achieved 98% third generation high speed wireless coverage last year
. From an FCC notice of proposed rulemaking
concerning new subsidies for rural 3G deployment (pdf):
Based on May 2010 American Roamer data and November 2009 population estimates, 98.5 percent of the population nationwide resides in areas with access to 3G services.
Granted, Obama did say "next-generation" wireless, but given the current debate around the definition of fourth generation (4G) wireless
, that term now technically includes every variety of mobile broadband faster than 256kbps. It's certain a vast majority of the public will see "next generation" 4G wireless within the next five years without the government lifting a finger. That makes this promise much like the FCC's promise to bring 100 Mbps service to 100 Million households in twenty years
, something also destined to happen organically (relatively inexpensive DOCSIS 3.0 cable upgrades) without Uncle Sam doing anything. In short, the 98% mark is another meaningless metric designed to impress people who don't pay attention.
That's not to say the government isn't doing a few interesting things to encourage broader next-generation coverage, including glacial efforts on white space broadband, helping the Lightsquared LTE network get off the ground
(maybe), freeing spectrum where possible, and paying oodles of lip service to getting broadband into the nation's rurals nooks and crannies (whether or not they actually want or can afford it is often undiscussed). By and large however, the government has exhibited continued cowardice
when it comes to enacting policies that actually help consumers -- consistently failing to take bold action to increase competition in both the wireless and terrestrial broadband space.
Obama's reference to "making it possible for businesses to deploy" high speed wireless is less about noble national infrastructure goals and more likely about two things: giving AT&T and Verizon (huge campaign donors now grafted to the nation's surveillance skeleton
) additional spectrum and a larger portion of the Universal Service Fund. The government's poorly audited and feebly monitored
e-rate program, designed to fund phone and broadband expansion into rural areas, gives the lion's share of such funds to smaller phone companies. AT&T and Verizon have been hungrily eying these easy, unaccountable billions for much of the last decade, and the program is being retooled at their repeated request.
Nobody seems to ask why the FCC repeatedly talks of "spectrum crisis," but ignores the fact AT&T alone currently squats on ten billion in unused spectrum
, a large portion of it in rural areas. Nobody seems to be asking whether or not these companies, who have received countless unaudited billions over the years
, should get one additional red cent from taxpayers to fund expansion they'll probably wind up doing anyway (and could easily afford on ETF penalty revenues alone). Instead of focusing on improving competition and reducing wireless costs for consumers, the government is focused on handing out additional billions to two companies that have shown time and time again they don't deserve it.
So while the goal of 98% wireless broadband coverage was a nice-sounding blurb to include in a speech alongside high-speed rail promises, the administration's actions over the last year (buckling on network neutrality for wireless, a largely-empty national broadband plan that fails to address competition) have shown that, just like previous administrations, the government is not really interested in seriously addressing telecom sector failings. The government is simply interested in business as usual, and more of the same.
More empty rhetoric, more broadband lip service, and more government policy dictated almost-exclusively by the nation's wealthiest carriers -- all while the press nods dumbly without asking any real questions and the public engages in hollow partisan debate.