Politics & Policy

Big Government’s Next Frontier: WiFi

Obama wants to “invest” in high-speed Internet.

Voters may have slapped Democrats for their spendaholic overreach in November, but Obama was undeterred as he used the small college town of Marquette, Mich., to advocate more federal intrusion into wireless-Internet infrastructure.

“If you can do this in the snowy U.P.,” he said. “we can do this all across America.”

Northern Michigan University is doing just fine, thank you very much, in extending a WiFi network across Marquette, where many of its 6,500 students reside. The school, with local municipal help and grants from tech giants Intel, Motorola, Cisco, and Lenovo (whose products augment NMU’s so-called WiMAX broadband technology), has made the Internet available to its students from anywhere in this sparsely populated town. (A local broadband company provides commercial service for non-student residents.) The university is a model for extending Internet service to rural Yoopers.

And with zero federal money. Yet Obama wants to use NMU as a model for federal WiFi spending. Obama hearkened back to FDR’s Rural Electrification Administration in advancing a new federal infrastructure program — even as the rural, 21st-century town in front of him already had privately financed WiFi.

Obama has already been “investing” millions in rural WiFi as part of his mammoth stimulus bill. The deceptively titled Recovery Act — actually a front for an Obama New Deal to spend on self-indulgent, “transformative” tech — provided some $7 billion for broadband toys, including $2.5 billion for the Rural Utility Service (yet another federal bureaucracy tucked away in the rolls of federal-budget fat) at the Agriculture Department. Michigan’s Oakland County, for example — the fourth-richest county in America — has received $32 million in stimulus welfare for its “rural” population.

This kind of largesse has attracted the attention of incoming Republicans, who have scheduled oversight hearings on how this money is being spent. “Before we target any more of our scarce taxpayer dollars for broadband,” Michigan representative and House Energy Committee chairman Fred Upton said in response to Obama’s remarks, “let’s ensure our resources are being used wisely. After all, even without these billions in taxpayer subsidies, the private sector has already deployed broadband to 95 percent of the country.”

At least his National Wireless Initiative (NWI)  piggybacks on proven technologies, such as the laptops and PDAs that have spawned vast, privately funded 4G and cellular networks. And his NWI is progressive in that it will auction off more spectrum so that these networks can grow (though, as Heritage Foundation regulatory expert Diane Katz points out, the FCC has been a bureaucratic hindrance in recognizing market advances).

By contrast, his ambitious transformation of America to Green Utopia depends on government’s not only funding an entire national grid of alternative wind and solar power, but creating the products dependent on it — electric vehicles — via massive federal battery expenditure and consumer tax credits. Like kids in a candy store — “God, wouldn’t it be wonderful? Why don’t we invest $100 billion? Let’s just go build it!” Vice President Biden told Time magazine — the Obama administration is spending one-sixth of the stimulus bill, an estimated $130 billon, on this folly. The merely wasteful rural WiFi expenditure (of the $28 billion in auction monies, $15 billion will be distributed as federal WiFi pork) looks modest by comparison.

Still, the idea that rural WiFi is an essential federal service proves Washington has lost perspective. And this White House is nothing if not a model of skewed perspective. The president’s speech today reveled in Orwellian language — “win the future,” “investing” — to con the public into letting the government spend their money.

“We want to invest in the next generation of high-speed Internet,” he said, proclaiming — as with electric cars — that he knows what the next generation is. Greedy for government intervention, the White House claims that “absent additional government investment, millions of Americans will not be able to participate in the 4G revolution. To that end, the President’s Budget supports the 4G buildout in rural areas through a one-time $5 billion investment.” Yet, somehow, private markets got to 4G without Washington inventing 1G. And private markets — and America’s vast non-profit wealth — will provide rural coverage as they have at NMU.

When I ask why Marquette’s private, local model should be hijacked as a model for federal expenditures, an NMU spokesman says that tapping private capital was “hard.”

Well, yes, it’s so much easier to have government just “give” it to you. Welcome to the efficiency of private capital markets. NMU’s WiMAX solution fits its campus and community. It may not fit others. But consolidate the model under a clumsy, one-size-fits-all federal program, and it becomes another inflexible, expensive federal program.

And that’s precisely what voters rejected in November.

— Henry Payne is editor of TheMichiganView.com and cartoonist for the Detroit News.


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