Expansion, but not yet to every community
President Barack Obama promised to expand broadband availability in America with bold initiatives and spending. While the administration and Federal Communications Commission officials admit that more needs to be done, they say they have worked to increase and improve broadband availability over the past three years.
Today, about 95% of Americans have access to some form of broadband, while only about 67% of households subscribe. However, Obama"s promise is specifically related to broadband availability, not broadband adoption.
In March 2010, the FCC established its National Broadband Plan. The plan, a multi-faceted approach aimed at bringing broadband to all parts of the country, has led to a number of spending initiatives (in the 2009 stimulus known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) and policy measures that fulfil the president"s promises to broaden and strengthen broadband availability.
"I would say the Obama Administration has taken steps toward greater geographical coverage of broadband,” said John Horrigan, the vice president of policy research at TechNet, a nonpartisan association that promotes technological innovation in Washington. Horrigan said the president has fulfilled many of the minor promises included within his greater promise.
The first thing Horrigan pointed out is that "reform of the Universal Service Fund is underway.” The Universal Service Fund is an FCC initiative that has been criticized as outdated due to its focus on telephone services rather than broadband. According to FCC spokesperson Mark Wigfield, "the FCC has attempted to make fundamental, comprehensive reforms for the better part of a decade and only now was finally able to move forward.”
As the National Broadband Plan calls for, the FCC is in the process of reforming four of the outdated Universal Service Fund programs, including the Universal Service High-Cost program. Wigfield said this specific program badly needed reform. It "was focused on telephone service and needed to be retooled to effectively support broadband and mobility, along with voice service,” he said. "While the program indirectly supported broadband, it did so inefficiently, without accountability, and unfairly.”
For these reasons, in October 2011 the FCC voted to transform the High-Cost program into the Connect America Fund, a new initiative with a stronger focus on broadband expansion. According to the Huffington Post, "the changes represent the Obama administration"s most significant overhaul of telecommunications regulations.” Wigfield said the new fund "is designed to allocate money more efficiently and effectively in order to expand broadband.” It provides billions of dollars to mobile broadband and rural wireline carriers for expanding coverage.
TechNet's Horrigan also mentioned that the president is beginning to deliver on his promise of "better use of the nation"s wireless spectrum.” Essentially, wireless spectrum is "comprised of those frequencies in the electromagnetic fields in the earth"s atmosphere that can be used to carry radio waves,” according to Wigfield. He added that it "is also used every day by the nation"s commercial mobile wireless networks, touching virtually every consumer"s daily life.”
On March 26, 2012, the FCC decided to make 95MHz of wireless spectrum controlled by the federal government available for commercial mobile broadband use. According to CNET, this decision was "a major step toward reaching President Obama's goal of doubling the amount of wireless spectrum that can be used for wireless broadband services by 2020.”
In addition to this release of government spectrum, Horrigan noted that "Congress has authorized the FCC to conduct incentive auctions to reclaim under-utilized broadcast spectrum.” Essentially, Horrigan said, broadcasters were allocated spectrum for television years ago, but since technology has changed over time, much of this spectrum is now unneeded. These "voluntary incentive spectrum auctions” push broadcasters to free up spectrum they aren"t using for auction. The government will sell the spectrum back to the marketplace -- to be purchased by wireless carriers -- and the broadcasters will get some of the proceeds.
Another facet of Obama"s promise was to "promote next-generation facilities [and] technologies.” A report from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) shows that there have been "almost 30,000 workstations installed at libraries and other public computer centers,” along with improved broadband at a variety of locations such as universities and medical facilities, fulfilling that goal.
The final smaller promise Obama made - to provide "new tax and loan incentives,” was kept in part. Tax credits were included in in the initial stimulus bill but later dropped. However, loans survived as a part of the $7 billion in the stimulus for broadband expansion.
According to the NTIA report, $4.7 billion of those stimulus funds have resulted in more than 45,000 miles of new or upgraded broadband networks, a definite expansion of broadband in the country.
Even with these accomplishments, Wigfield acknowledges that "service remains unavailable to over 20 million Americans” and that the "broadband progress report issued last May said more needs to be done to expand availability.”
So, while Obama has delivered on much of what he promised -- including FCC reform, loans and better use of the nation's wireless spectrum -- bringing "true broadband to every community in America” is still on the horizon. We're rating this a Compromise.
Email interview with Mark Wigfield, FCC spokesman.
Email and phone interview with John Horrigan, VP of policy research at TechNet.
Email interview with Matt Lehrich, assistant press secretary at the White House.
Huffington Post, Connect America Fund: FCC Unveils Rules For Rural Broadband Fund. Oct 27, 2011.
PC World, FCC Votes To End Telephone Subsidies, Shift To Broadband. Oct 27, 2011.
MarketWatch, New TechNet Study: On Two-Year Anniversary of National Broadband Plan, U.S. Adoption Rates Level Off. Mar 20, 2012.
CNET, Spectrum Auction Compromise Part of Payroll Tax Cut Bill. Feb 16, 2012.
CNET, Feds Target 95 MHz of Wireless Spectrum For Mobile Broadband. Mar 27, 2012.
NY Times, Broadband Tax Credit Cut From Stimulus Bill. Feb 11, 2009.
Washington Post, Biden Announces $4 Billion In Grants and Loans. Jul 2, 2009.
Broadband Technology Opportunities Program Quarterly Program Status Report, March 2012.
Administration makes progress on expanding broadband access
Expanding access to broadband was one of the key technology promises that President Obama made on the campaign trail. In January 2009, we rated the pledge In the Works, since the economic stimulus bill that Obama signed in February of that year contained roughly $6 billion for expanding high-speed Internet access.
We're well into the second year of Obama's presidency, so we wanted to see how he's been doing.
To start off, the final version of the stimulus bill that Obama signed directed $7.2 billion toward broadband expansion projects. Of that amount, the Commerce Department received $4.7 billion. The rest went to the Department of Agriculture.
As of July 2010, $2.7 billion in grants and loans has been spent on more than 260 projects, according to a White House statement. The most recent batch of grants went out in July of this year. The administration awarded $795 million to 66 new projects, with an additional $200 million coming in from private investment programs. "In total, tens of millions of Americans and over 685,000 businesses, 900 health care facilities and 2,400 schools in all fifty states stand to benefit from the awards," the White House said.
Additionally, in March 2010, the Federal Communications Commission released the first ever National Broadband Plan. The 360-page document makes numerous recommendations for expanding Internet access. It also includes six long-term goals. As an example, the plan calls on every American community to have at least 1 gigabit per second connection and for every first responder to have access to a nationwide, wireless, interoperable broadband public safety network.
On June 28, 2010, President Obama signed a memorandum directing the FCC to "make available a total of 500 MHz of Federal and non-federal spectrum over the next 10 years, suitable for both mobile and fixed wireless broadband use." Translation: the government is trying to increase the capacity for faster wireless transmissions.
Finally, on July 15, 2010, the Federal Communications Commission announced that it is initiating a new $400 million health care connectivity program to expand broadband access for medically underserved regions. The agency hopes that the new program will lower health care costs, improve medical care, spur private investment in networks, and help create jobs. "Nearly 30 percent of federally funded rural health care clinics can't afford secure and reliable broadband services," the FCC wrote in a press release.
President Obama promised to expand broadband's reach. So far, his administration has spent $2.7 billion dollars in loans and grants on expansion projects. The FCC has also issued a comprehensive broadband strategy plan, and there is movement to open up the airwaves for faster wireless connections. The government is also investing money to expand broadband access in rural hospitals. But the recommendations in the plan still have to be implemented, and less than half the money has been spent. So we're keeping this one In the Works.
The White House, Background on the President's Recovery Act Announcement Tomorrow, Jul 2, 2010
Reuters, Obama announces broadband grants to spur jobs, by John Poirier, Jul 2, 2010
The Hill, President Obama announces $795 million in broadband grants, by Gautham Nagesh, Jul 2, 2010
Federal Computer Week, Obama makes $795M in broadband grants, by Alice Lipowicz, Jul 6, 2010
Federal Communications Commission, National Broadband Plan, accessed July 19, 2010 (pdf)
Federal Communications Commission, National Broadband Plan executive summary, accessed July 19, 2010
Cnet, Stimulus bill includes $7.2 billion for broadband, by Stephanie Condon, Feb. 17, 2009
Computerworld, FCC's national broadband plan released, by Grant Gross, March 16, 2010
The White House, Presidential Memorandum: Unleashing the Wireless Broadband Revolution, June 28, 2010
NewsFactor, FCC Seeks More Wireless Spectrum for Mobile Internet, Jul 16, 2010
Federal Communications Commission, Press Release: FCC PROGRAM TO EXPAND INVESTMENT IN BROADBAND HEALTH CARE TECHNOLOGY, July 15, 2010
Dems propose billions for broadband
Certainly no one is happy that the U.S. economy is in such dire straights that policymakers are talking about a stimulus plan that could cost more than $500 billion. But an unintended benefit for Barack Obama is that the bill gives him a chance to make good on a number of his more expensive campaign promises.
Obama discussed the broad outline of his hopes for the bill in a speech at George Mason University on Jan. 8, 2009.
"It is not just another public-works program," Obama said. "It's a plan that recognizes both the paradox and the promise of this moment — the fact that there are millions of Americans trying to find work even as all around the country there's so much work to be done. That's why we'll invest in priorities like energy and education; health care and a new infrastructure that are necessary to keep us strong and competitive in the 21st century."
Democrats in the U.S. House released a broad outline of what they hope to include in the 2009 stimulus bill and it contained many ideas Obama promised during the campaign, including $6 billion proposed for expanding high-speed Internet access. About $2.8 billion is specifically designated for rural areas.
Granted, this is still a proposal, but it's concrete enough that we're moving the Obameter from No Action to In the Works.
New York Times, Barack Obama speech on the economy at George Mason University , Jan. 8, 2009