White House Correspondent
Last Thursday, President Obama seemed to be having a tough time with the internet. In a joint press conference
with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the U.S. leader made a largely imperceptible gaffe, referring to Medvedev's visit to the Silicon Valley headquarters of "Twitter's"
(rather than "Twitter"). Thanks to the very technology that makes Twitter possible, Obama's mistake was heard round the world with alarming speed, and in no time, the misstatement was fodder for parody
from all corners. If the president has his way, that speed of transmission will only increase in the coming years.
On Monday, Obama signed a presidential memorandum
calling for the federal government to free up 500 megahertz of wireless communication spectrum from both federal and private sources, nearly doubling the amount currently available. This spectrum will then be made available by auction: though the majority of it will be directed towards "mobile broadband and other high-value uses," the memorandum does allow for the sharing of spectrum between the government and private sector, and for free, unlicensed use of spectrum by technology startups, small businesses and individual users.
The first step of the plan is for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to identify -- by October 1, 2010 -- existing spectrum that may be freed up for federal and shared use. Reallocation of spectrum will be voluntary. The New York Times reports roughly 45%
of the spectrum will come from federal agencies "asked to give up allocations that they are not using or could share." Those that do so will be reimbursed for costs relating to changes made to their systems to accommodate for the reallocation.
Pending congressional approval, private companies that choose to reallocate their spectrum will be reimbursed through FCC-led "incentive" auctions. A bulk of this private-sector reallocation is expected to come from television broadcast companies and cable television channels. The White House is seeking further seeking Congressional approval to use proceeds from the auction of federal spectrum to upgrade federal agencies' communications systems and establish a new, "interoperable wireless broadband network for public safety." The aim of this network would be to ensure better coordination between emergency services across different jurisdictions, a problem identified in the wake of 9/11.
Proceeds from the auction would also be directed to reducing the budget deficit and supporting infrastructure initiatives, including a SmartGrid and high speed rail systems.
The Obama administration is touting the broadband initiative as a "win-win" situation, and senior administration officials pointed to a host of benefits arising from the greater access spectrum, including applications in health care, energy, education and public safety.
Officials cited wireless access as critical for the United States to remain on the cutting edge of technological innovation and developing "21st-century jobs," saying, "Acting quickly will help the United States remain competitive." The White House cited a recent study noting that, "GDP can increase $7 to $10 for every dollar invested in mobile wireless broadband networks," adding that, "mobile wireless broadband generates huge productivity gains to the U.S. economy; some estimate that those benefits are valued at $28 billion per year and rising, with combined mobile wireless voice and broadband productivity gains set to reach $427 billion annually by 2016. "
Perhaps most importantly, the White House has pointed to the initiative as critical in reducing the "digital divide." Fifty percent of adults in rural households have broadband access at home, compared with 68 percent in non-rural households. According to the White House, increased access to spectrum will help bring down costs and raise quality, providing better access and encouraging adoption among unserved and minority communities, who have traditionally had much lower adoption rates.