In Obama’s 2011 State of the Union Address he spoke of many goals on his agenda – one of these goals: within the next five years bring high-speed wireless coverage to 98 percent of all Americans. On February 10 Obama recanted his intent to bring high-speed wireless internet to the majority of Americans during his visit to the college town of Marquette, Michigan which has experienced great success from accessibility to wireless internet. Obama’s plan to increase access to high speed wireless internet is part of a wider initiative to spark innovation and investment in America’s future. The benefits of widespread wireless internet are intended to benefit commerce, public safety, education, and health care.
In fact, billions were allocated in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to bring internet access to rural areas of the country. It’s not clear whether what’s been spent so far has had any significant impact on achieving this goal. The state of Wisconsin is returning $23 million intended to expand high-speed internet access in that state due to the precise requirements and costly penalty if those requirements are not met (Rick Barrett of the Journal Sentinel). Obama’s plan for additional improvements to the country’s internet infrastructure is not intended to cost taxpayers additional funds. In order to support the growing market for wireless internet access, particularly for smartphone and tablet users, Obama proposes auctioning off radio air waves owned by tv broadcasting companies and some government agencies. What remains questionable is how willing broadcasting companies will be to sell off their airwaves and what sort of incentives the government can and will offer to these companies for the auction. These are all variables that make this goal complicated.
Aside from the complexities of existing regulations and politics – broadening the availability of wireless internet has been compared to bringing electricity, railway, and roads to all rural areas of the country. Because the cost has not yet been justified by the number of available customers many residents in rural areas are still using notoriously slow dial-up connections. A USA Today article by John Curran cited many examples of how individuals, schools, and businesses struggle with their slow connection, which has decreased the opportunities available to them. Curran explains how Val Houde of rural Vermont paid $800 for a correspondence course on medical transcription in order to be able to work from home – the software to do the job was not compatible with dial-up internet. He also mentions one Vermont school district with 13 schools that share one T-line. If a class wants to have a video field trip all users need to stop using e-mail first. Those of us living in large cities and suburbs could probably not even imagine dealing with these kinds of obstacles to easy internet acess.
Are there benefits to expanding high-speed internet to all reaches of the country? Absolutely. When this expansion will take place and how it will be paid for is the big question.