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.
Accessing a Wireless Service Patchwork
These people probably can’t afford the hundred bucks or so it takes to buy a laptop card for the wireless service that serves their area and they’re even less likely to be able to afford that much every month for the subscription to the service.
Adding to the problem is that each carrier has its own proprietary means of accessing their broadband network, which means that if you have AT&T wireless broadband at home, you’re out of luck if you travel into an area where AT&T doesn’t have service, but Verizon Wireless does.
Somehow I don’t think that this patchwork of mutually incompatible, expensive wireless services is what President Obama had in mind when he talked about the importance of wireless broadband. It seems that his thoughts were on a means of making all of the United States more competitive because all, or mostly all, of the United States would have high-speed access to the rest of the world to sell products, conduct commerce and work with customers and suppliers wherever they might be. I’m not convinced that you could use any of the carriers’ wireless services this way, especially when it comes to using the network for e-commerce or large file transfers.
So while wireless access is available most everywhere in the United States now and something approaching broadband may be available fairly soon, it’s not meeting the goals that the President set forth. So if the wireless services can’t meet the requirement, how can it be met?
The answer to that question is that there’s no real answer. The FCC has a plan but it’s mired in the net neutrality mess and some of that mess involves lawyers that may take a painfully long time to resolve anything. Even if the FCC’s plan were freed up today, it’s unclear when (or even if) that would be translated into a wireless broadband infrastructure that would be available to those who needed it.
This is not to say that the President’s goal is a bad idea. It’s not. One way or the other the United States needs high-speed access to the Internet for its businesses to remain competitive with the rest of the world. The problem is figuring how we’re going to get there. Right now the chosen vehicle is the FCC, but it doesn’t look as if the Commission has the ability to make this happen without miring the process in endless bureaucracy and unsupported mandates. So there needs to be another way. Perhaps when we find that other way we can use that approach to enable some of the President’s other good ideas that also seem unlikely to actually happen under current conditions.