When President Barack Obama said in the State of the Union address that he wanted to see broadband wireless available to 80 percent of the U.S. population within the next couple of years, he was really taking a line from the National Broadband Plan that the Federal Communication Commission has been pushing for the past year.
Congress tasked the agency with finding a way to bring broadband Internet service to most of the United States, and since then the FCC has been working on that goal. But it's been doing it in the only way the FCC knows-making rules that annoy pretty much everyone and that have no clear connection to the original goal.
For example, the National Broadband Plan is the reason that the FCC gives for deciding it has dominion over wired broadband Internet access in the absence of any other clear directive or enabling legislation. Of course, since the President was talking about wireless broadband, it's an area where the FCC has some statutory authority, what with wireless Internet being radio, and all. But it's not clear that the FCC is going to make the President's goal achievable.
Part of the problem is that the existing net neutrality rules are already drawing lawsuits from carriers. The carriers want the rules changed, and these suits will likely stall the FCC rules until they're resolved. This could take years and because the FCC has tied its broadband plan so closely to net neutrality that plan could be on hold along with everything else. If the courts hand the FCC another defeat on the scale of an earlier net neutrality ruling in favor of Comcast, the FCC could find itself losing everything and being set back by years.
Such a setback could put a wireless high speed Internet plan into limbo for a long time. Unless, of course, you're flexible about your definition of wireless broadband Internet. If you assume that the 3G offerings of Verizon Wireless and AT&T constitute a broadband connection to the Internet, then we're probably already there. The 4G technologies from the four major wireless companies are less widely available, but they should be approaching that 80 percent goal in a couple of years, at least if you believe their press releases.
But there's a problem. Part of the plan with national broadband access is that it should also be affordable. This was necessary if the National Broadband Plan was really going to serve rural areas, economically challenged areas, and users that can't get cable service.