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 The Universal Service Fund is an FCC initiative that has been criticized as outdated due to its focus on telephone services rather than broadband.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As the National Broadband Plan calls for, the FCC is in the process of reforming four of the outdated Universal Service Fund programs, including the Universal Service High-Cost program.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.