If you sell it, they will come. At least that’s the premise behind an important, but overlooked part of the president’s budget proposal released on Monday. The plan comes just days after President Obama announced an ambitious and perhaps overly optimistic new proposal to auction off large swaths of public wireless airwaves to private telecom companies in order to extend high-speed wireless access to 98 percent of the country over the next five years.
Obama began the pitch for his new plan last Thursday in a speech at Northern Michigan University, declaring that “we can’t expect tomorrow’s economy to take root using yesterday’s infrastructure.” It was a speech made in the heart of one of the country’s hardest hit industrial heartlands, and one that built on the themes of last month’s State of the Union address, in which 21st century tech job growth took center stage. The proposal is also of particular importance to communities of color, who are among the country’s most disconnected and often rely on mobile technology to help bridge the gap.
Here’s how the plan would work. Broadcast TV stations currently own the nation’s most reliable public wireless airwaves, called spectrum, bought decades before anyone could imagine how mobile Internet could work, much less that it could be used to transform the nation’s economy. The administration would encourage those broadcast TV stations to auction off 500 megahertz of that spectrum back to the federal government. The feds would in turn sell the airwaves to private telecom companies like Verizon and use that money toward trimming the national deficit.
To be precise, Obama’s proposal would raise an estimated $27.8 billion, of which $5 billion would go toward building a fund to develop a 4G wireless network in rural areas. Another $10.7 billion from the fund would be used to create a wireless network for exclusive use by public safety agencies. And an additional $3 billion would be used to create incentives for research and development of emerging wireless technologies. It’s a proposal that’s supposed to make good on the National Broadband Plan’s goals of catching the U.S. up to speed with other industrialized nations who’ve done far better in expanding their high-speed wireless networks to all of its residents. And it pays for itself. Sounds great, right?
Not quite. Advocates say the proposal rests on the dangerous premise of entrusting a public utility with private, profit-driven companies.
S. Derek Turner, research director at Free Press, wrote an op-ed at Politico shortly after the president announced his plans, asking: “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?”
So far, teleco’s haven’t treated their customers fairly. After wrangling for months in closed door meetings, the Federal Communications Commission released a set of net neutrality rules riddled with corporate loopholes. Among the commission’s biggest omissions were that the rules didn’t extend to wireless services, allowing wireless providers to build out networks at a pace that conveniently meets their bottom line.
Metro PCS, the nation’s fifth largest mobile carrier and one that’s largely seen as a more affordable alternative to AT&T and Verizon, is already being accused of foul play by advocates who claim the company’s treating poor customers unfairly. The company recently released a new set of tiered data plans that that require customers to pay more for full Web access. Malkia Cyril, executive director for the Center for Media Justice, penned a Huffington Post op-ed accusing the company of pimping poor folks’ pocketbooks. Meanwhile, David Honing, co-founder of the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council, is a strong supporter of Metro PCS’s new plan.