In this four-part Industry Spotlight series, Telecompetitor looks at the key ideas proposed in the Obama broadband wireless plan, the rationale behind them, and what would be required to move them forward. In Part 1 below, we provide an overview of the plan.

When future telecom historians look back at the Obama administration, it may be remembered most for being the first to heavily emphasize the use of wireless as a method for delivering broadband service. And to understand how the Obama administration views wireless broadband, there’s no better place to start than the wireless plan that President Obama offered, formally called the National Wireless Initiative, up on February 10 in an address at Northern Michigan University, where he traveled to see how local businesses have been able to grow as a result of broadband access and how the university’s WiMax network has enabled distance learning for university and community students.

 

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Proposal highlights

A driving force behind Obama’s wireless plan is the belief that the amount of spectrum available for mobile broadband use will be insufficient to meet rising demand. That’s an idea that various members of his administration, including Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski, have been talking up in recent months.

At the CTIA show in March, for example, Genachowski cited analyst forecasts for a 35x increase in mobile broadband traffic over the next five years. Yet, he said, the amount of spectrum available for mobile broadband has only seen a threefold increase over where we were a few years ago.

A key part of Obama’s proposed solution to what he sees as an impending spectrum shortage is to auction some unused spectrum that is currently in government hands. In addition, the president wants to allow certain commercial spectrum holders—primarily television broadcasters–to voluntarily relinquish unused spectrum and to share with the government in the proceeds from an auction of that spectrum, an idea known as a “voluntary incentive auction.”

The Obama administration estimates that a voluntary incentive auction of commercial spectrum, in combination with the auction of unused government spectrum, could raise about $28 billion for the government. The president’s wireless plan proposes using that money as follows:

  • $10 billion for a nationwide public safety network
  • $5 billion for the Universal Service wireless mobility fund
  • $3 billion for research and development (including $500 million for public safety-related research)
  • $9.6 billion for deficit reduction

Not all of these ideas had their genesis with President Obama. The nationwide public safety network and the wireless mobility fund have been discussed for years and both were recommended in the National Broadband Plan issued in mid-March 2010. But the $3 billion for research and development, formally known as the Wireless Innovation (WIN) fund appears to be a new proposal.

Moving forward

Several of the proposed initiatives—including the plan for the voluntary incentive auction, as well as the creation of the national public safety network–would require legislative action. Several pieces of legislation have been introduced to create the public safety network and to pay for it using auction proceeds, although the multiple bills differ on issues such as whether broadcasters should share in auction proceeds and how much money should be allocated to public safety.

Other plans proposed by President Obama, including the $3 billion for research and development and the $5 billion for the wireless mobility fund, would need to be formalized as part of the usual federal budget process.

Read Part 2 of this four-part series, where we look at voluntary spectrum auction plans.