The Obama administration's recent announcement of its National Wireless Initiative to subsidize the build out of 4th generation (4G) wireless Internet to make it available to least 98 percent of Americans appears based on the assumption that cutting edge wireless telecommunications technology can play a central role in the nation's telecom infrastructure.
I'm not convinced. 4G wireless is only just emerging and remains unproven in terms of whether it can deliver sufficient bandwidth at the same time bandwidth demand is increasing exponentially. It's primarily designed for mobile use and portable devices such as smart phones and IPads that are gobbling bandwidth at such a prodigious rate that providers have a difficult time meeting the demand. That's why they ration bandwidth and penalize wireless customers who use more than 5 GB per month. The rationing is due to a more basic telecom infrastructure problem: the lack of adequate wire line infrastructure to "backhaul" or feed the distribution system that supports that huge and growing universe of wireless devices.
The administration's wireless initiative seems to suggest that people can "cut the cord" for Internet access just as they have done for wire line voice service, which requires far less bandwidth. 4G wireless, the administration apparently believes, can provide access to medical tests, online courses and applications that have not yet been invented.
That remains to be seen. What is certain now is wire line fiber optic connections to American households and businesses can deliver more than enough bandwidth for today's needs without the need for rationing plus plenty of additional capacity for those yet to be invented applications. The administration's telecom infrastructure efforts should focus on bringing it to the 24 million Americans that Federal Communications Chairman Julius Genachowski said remain disconnected from the Internet. "The infrastructure simply isn’t there," Genachowski explained.
The reason: It's simply not sufficiently profitable for investor owned providers to build it. Alternative, lower cost methods are urgently needed. The best and most rapid way to bring about these alternatives is to focus at the local level and provide local governments and consumer telecom cooperatives technical assistance grants and low cost loans to build open access fiber networks to serve their communities.
The administration's health care reform legislation allocates $5 billion in technical assistance grants to for new health insurance cooperatives to pool risk and purchase health coverage for their members. The administration should provide a similar amount of technical assistance funding for local governments and telecom cooperatives to help them plan and design open access fiber optic telecom networks.