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TECHNOLOGY

Obama to Unveil Major Wireless Initiative

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President Obama.(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

President Obama will unveil today a major wireless initiative aimed at bringing wireless access to 98 percent of the country within five years, building a national public safety broadband network, and promoting wireless innovation and research and development.

Obama will detail his Wireless Innovation and Infrastructure Initiative during a speech today at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Mich., where he will highlight how local businesses there have benefited from having access to broadband. Last June, Obama endorsed the Federal Communications Commission’s goal of freeing up 500 megahertz of spectrum over the next decade for wireless broadband and other technologies.

 

“Taken together, [the latest proposal] makes better use of our existing spectrum and resources,” Jason Furman, deputy director of the National Economic Council, said in a conference call late Wednesday.

As part of this initiative, the White House has embraced a FCC proposal that calls for legislation to allow the agency to conduct incentive auctions, which are aimed at incentivizing broadcasters and other commercial spectrum users to give up some of their airwaves in exchange for a portion of the auction proceeds.

Broadcasters have said they support incentive auctions as long as they are truly voluntary and do not jeopardize free over-the-air television for consumers.

 

The incentive auction proposal along with the auction of spectrum from some government users is expected to net a total of $27.8 billion over the next decade, $9.6 billion of which would go toward deficit reduction, White House officials said.

The $27.8 billion is the amount the government would net after giving broadcasters and others who relinquish some of their spectrum a share in the auction proceeds and pay the costs of relocating or consolidating federal spectrum users into different bands. The officials did not detail how much money they expect to generate from spectrum auctions or how much would go to broadcasters for giving up some of their spectrum.

White House officials said $10.7 billion of the $27.8 billion also would help build an interoperable public safety broadband network, a proposal that was first called for by the commission that investigated the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, after the event exposed problems facing first-responder communications.

In addition, the president’s wireless initiative also reiterates the White House's call for reallocating a controversial chunk of spectrum known as the D-Block to public safety officials, as they have been demanding, for the creation of the public safety network instead of auctioning off the D-Block to commercial users as required by current law. Proposals have been introduced in the last Congress and this year to re-allocate the D-Block to public safety officials.

 

However, some GOP lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee have resisted calls to re-allocate the D-Block to public safety and instead say the spectrum should be auctioned off to commercial bidders as planned and use the proceeds for deficit reduction.

Other aspects of the White House proposal call for providing a one-time $5 billion infusion to the FCC’s universal service fund to help pay for capital costs in the build out of 4G wireless technologies in rural areas. The FCC approved on Tuesday the first step in a proposal to transform the universal service fund, which now subsidizes telephone service in rural areas, to support broadband service. Officials said the White House proposal would compliment the FCC’s efforts, and also contribute to the build out of the public safety network in rural areas by utilizing some of the same wireless towers used for commercial wireless coverage.

“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,” according to a White House fact sheet on the proposal.

A final component of the White House plan calls for investing $3 billion in a Wireless Innovation Fund, which would support “basic research, experimentation and testbeds, and applied development in a number of areas, including public safety, education, energy, health, transportation, and economic development.”

Federal Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra said the fund will ensure “we are investing in new technologies and applications to allow us to build the next generation of wireless networks.”

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