Politics & Policy

Obama’s Disconnect

The president's model WiFi companies don’t use WiFi.

Touting WiFi infrastructure as the next generation’s answer to government-funded railroad and interstate systems, Pres. Barack Obama came to the remote northern Michigan town of Marquette last week to tout his National Wireless Initiative — a program that, he boasted, has connected rural businesses to the world and helped them expand international trade. 

Cool: Except that the Marquette businesses Obama touted don’t use WiFi to sell their products.

Indeed, Getz Clothiers and VIO Inc. (a fiber-optic camera maker) have built their thriving businesses using secure, high-speed cable lines built by AT&T and Charter without any federal “investment” at all. The railroad is already there.

“For millions of Americans, the railway hasn’t shown up yet,” Obama said, declaring that every American deserves access to the 21st century economy. “For our families and our businesses, high-speed wireless service: that’s the next train station — it’s the next off-ramp. It’s how we’ll spark new innovation, new investments, and new jobs.” 

The White House strongly implied that were it not for Northern Michigan University’s new WiMAX wireless initiative Marquette would be cut off from the global economy.

The guests from the firms, according to the Detroit News, were among a “group of executives who will be held up as examples of how Obama’s National Wireless Initiative will help businesses.”

“High-speed wireless is why I chose to come to Northern Michigan University today,” the president said before introducing the Getz family. “For local businesses, broadband access is helping them grow and prosper and compete in a global economy.”

In truth, NMU’s WiFi is a nonprofit venture and cannot provide commercial access to local businesses. Not that they would want insecure WiFi, anyway. Private tech companies like AT&T and Charter have been serving Marquette business with cable broadband for over a decade.

The White House’s untruth was not an issue for Getz and VIO, who were naturally thrilled to have the president of the United States touting their businesses and their tech-savvy town on the shores of Lake Superior. But Getz vice president for marketing John Spigorelli said his company uses both AT&T and Charter lines for online commerce, explaining that they would “never do transactions on WiFi, due to liability issues with customer credit cards.”

“Businesses require secure online transactions,” said VIO marketing director Clint Stack.

But the facts of the case are more problematic for American taxpayers, who are being asked to spend — “invest,” to use the president’s euphemistic term — on a new federal WiFi program under false pretenses.

A White House spokesman said that, despite the disconnect in the president’s message, his speech was about “making broadband more widely available.” But if that were so, the president’s program would be called the National Broadband Initiative, not the National Wireless Initiative. Indeed, it is commerce that brought the president and Sen. Carl Levin to this remote Yooper town. Sure, the president touted WiFi’s benefits to schools and government services, but taxpayer “investors” are unlikely to be impressed at giving rural kids better access to Facebook. It was the “jobs, job, jobs” promise that put it on Obama’s “Winning the Future” agenda. 

His speech was littered with commercial references. “Towns like this are where our economic future will be won,” he said, comparing wireless coverage to the “transcontinental railroad (that) laid the foundation for a nationwide economy so that entrepreneurs can send anything anywhere.”

President Obama made his sales pitch to con taxpayers into creating a new, “job-creating” government WiFi program. But private markets are doing the job just fine.

– Henry Payne is editor of TheMichiganView.com and cartoonist for The Detroit News.

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