Ninety-eight percent of U.S. residents would have access to high-speed mobile broadband service within five years under a plan that President Barack Obama detailed Thursday.
Obama's proposal, which he alluded to in his State of the Union speech last month, would free up 500MHz of wireless spectrum over a decade by offering to share spectrum auction proceeds with current spectrum holders, including television stations, that have unused airwaves.
The cost of the proposal is likely to raise questions from lawmakers, and some backers of government broadband spending have already raised concerns that the plan would give money and spectrum to large mobile carriers.
The voluntary incentive actions, also advocated in the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's national broadband plan released last March, would raise an estimated US $27.8 billion over the next decade, the White House said in a fact sheet.
Obama would also spend $10.7 billion to build a nationwide broadband network for public safety agencies, including police and fire departments. Some lawmakers and public safety officials have been calling for a national network since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S.
Obama's plan would include a one-time outlay of $5 billion to bring mobile broadband to areas unlikely to be served by commercial providers without subsidies. Another $3 billion of the spectrum auction fees would go to wireless broadband research and development.
The $5 billion for mobile broadband would be focused on 4G technologies, the White House said.
"America's businesses are building out 4G networks to much of the nation," the White House said in a statement. "Nevertheless, absent additional government investment, millions of Americans will not be able to participate in the 4G revolution. This investment will ... extend access from the almost 95 percent of Americans who have 3G wireless services today to at least 98 percent of all Americans gaining access to state-of-the-art 4G high-speed wireless services within five years."
About $9.6 billion of the auction proceeds would go toward the U.S. government's budget deficit, the White House said.
Obama, in a speech at Northern Michigan University, said government funding is needed to bring broadband to rural areas. He compared his mobile broadband proposal to government-supported build-outs of railroads, interstate highways, and the electric grid in past centuries.
"This is a new century," Obama said. "We can't expect tomorrow's economy to take root using yesterday's infrastructure."
While about 90 percent of South Koreans subscribe to broadband service, only about 65 percent of U.S. residents do, he added. "When it comes to high-speed Internet, the lights are still off in a third of our households," he said.
Several groups focused on improving broadband praised the president's plan.
"As many have observed, wireless Internet access is the wave of the future and a source of jobs and innovation," Harold Feld, legal director of Public Knowledge, said in an e-mail. "The investments promoted by the administration would, if implemented, go a long way to bringing next generation wireless service to areas which may not receive it any other way."
Feld, however, questioned the administration's estimates of revenue from spectrum auctions. The proposed incentive auctions do not yet have approval from Congress.
"It is not at all clear that incentive auctions or reverse auctions will take place," he said. "Even under circumstances of familiar auction procedures, estimates of revenue can [vary] greatly from what is actually achieved. Important spending for our future should not depend on the vagaries of auctions."
Free Press, another supporter of broadband improvements, questioned whether the auctions would supply spectrum to the small number of current mobile providers. Obama's plan focuses on the wrong goal, Free Press Research Director Derek Turner wrote in a Politico opinion piece Thursday.
Instead of focusing on mobile broadband deployment, when nearly all U.S. residents have mobile service available now, Obama should focus on improving broadband adoption and providing competition to the large mobile and broadband providers, Turner wrote.
This week, the FCC released a proposal to fund broadband deployment by redirecting billions of dollars from a fund that now subsidizes traditional telephone service.
"The president's message Thursday, coming on the heels of this costly proposal, highlights a disconnect in our policy thinking," Turner wrote. "Why should taxpayers fund the build-out of broadband networks, when the government could just require that profitable wireless companies pay for it -- in exchange for use of public airwaves?"
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.