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Obama pushes for national 4G-speed wireless

President offers details on plan for 4G-speed wireless connections in rural areas, but plan to spend over $18 billion hits resistance from Republican deficit hawks.

President Obama said today he wanted 98 percent of Americans to have 4G-speed wireless Internet connections within five years, calling it necessary for the United States to remain internationally competitive and "win the future."

In a speech at Northern Michigan University in snowy Marquette, Mich., Obama offered details on his administration's proposal to promote high-speed wireless Internet connections in rural areas, elaborating on a point he made in his State of the Union speech last month.

"Every American deserves access to the world's information," Obama said today. "Every American deserves access to the global economy. We have promised this for 15 years. It's time we delivered on that promise."

His administration's proposal will almost certainly require new legislation from Congress, however, and may prove vulnerable to criticism from deficit hawks on the right and opposition from companies who find themselves in the middle.

The idea works this way: local TV stations will be encouraged, but not required, to relinquish portions of the broadcast spectrum they're currently assigned by the Federal Communications Commission.

Those spectrum chunks would be auctioned off for bids by wireless companies like AT&T and Verizon, with a portion of the proceeds being returned to the broadcaster. That provides an incentive for broadcasters, who have been lobbying fiercely to ensure any auctions remain voluntary, but key details such as the formula used to calculate their revenue not yet been made public.

The White House estimates that the auctions would raise $27.8 billion over the next decade. Obama has proposed that $10.7 billion of that be spent on wireless networks for police, fire, and other public safety agencies; $5 billion be spent on a "4G buildout in rural areas"; and $3 billion be spent on "basic research" and development of wireless networks.

That leaves around only $9.6 billion for deficit reduction--assuming, of course, that Republican budget-cutters don't take an axe to the increases in government spending on wireless. The federal deficit has swollen to $1.5 trillion, and the national debt is $14.1 trillion, a figure that doesn't include promises to pay for future Medicare and Social Security benefits.

Rep. Dan Benishek, a Republican who represents Michigan's Upper Peninsula, was skeptical of the president's proposal for a new government program at a time when a tidal wave of debt is looming.

"I am as interested as anyone in seeing an increase in broadband access for all citizens of the Northern Michigan," said Benishek, a surgeon who was elected to the House in November. "At the same time, I have serious reservations about adding another federal program when the national debt already equals over $44,000 per person. In fact, the president's stimulus plan has already spent $7 billion on broadband upgrades."

Rep. Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican who's chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, added: "While I would welcome most any plan that actually raises $27.8 billion, I would caution against turning around and spending the majority of it in the current economic environment. Job creation and deficit reduction should be the priorities for the 112th Congress, not more spending."

In February 2009, Obama signed into law the so-called stimulus legislation, which includes $7.2 billion for broadband grant and loan programs. The bulk of the funds directed at broadband--$4.7 billion--were handed to the Commerce Department. About $2.5 billion was given to the Agriculture Department with an emphasis on broadband deployment in rural areas.

More details on the new proposal are expected in the administration's 2012 budget proposal, which forecasts a $1.56 trillion deficit and is scheduled to be released on Monday.

For its part, AT&T applauded today's announcement, calling it a "comprehensive and aggressive plan that lays the groundwork for bringing wireless broadband to all Americans."

But a coalition called Connect Public Safety Now, whose members include Sprint, Metro PCS, and T-Mobile, was more skeptical and said the FCC's national broadband plan represented a better alternative. The National Association of Broadcasters also stopped short of an endorsement, saying that TV stations returned a quarter of their spectrum less than two years ago, and much of it "has not yet been deployed."