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Obama Wants to Usher Every American Into the 'Digital Age'

president obamaThe final details surrounding the Obama administration's auction of wireless spectrum, potentially doubling that available for broadband, were announced by the president at a speech in Michigan on Thursday. The plan could net up to $27.8 billion dollars over the next ten years, with roughly a third of it going to reduce the budget deficit. It's the rest of the plan, though, where the really interesting stuff is going on. $5 billion is expected to be invested in expanding wireless broadband access to rural areas of the country, and an additional $3 billion will be put towards research and development of new wireless technologies. As our culture and economy become more Web-centric, the so-called digital divide becomes even more prominent. "This isn't just about a faster Internet or being able to find a friend on Facebook," the president said. "It's about connecting every corner of America to the digital age."

The Internet is a powerful tool for education and an engine for job creation. And basic Web and computer skills are a requirement even for most entry level positions. Poorer rural areas in the U.S. often lack quality broadband connections, and many believe that the quality of education will increase and the rate of unemployment decrease with the availability of reliable, in-home broadband. There is also research that suggests there is a direct correlation between broadband access and GDP. A 2008 study from the non-profit Connected Nation suggests that even a modest increase in broadband availability could result in $134 billion being fed into the economy through job creation and cost savings.

Like much of the rest of the infrastructure in the country (including the power grid, roads and rail lines), our communications systems are in desperate need of modernization. While urban areas are not short on fiber optic and copper cable, these physical data pipes are sometimes prohibitively expensive and difficult to run to the more remote reaches of the nation. This, in conjunction with the clear direction of the telecommunications landscape, is the reason the Obama administration has focused so heavily on wireless technologies.

The government also hopes to build a nation-wide emergency communications network capable of handling both voice and data. Problems with our current emergency response systems were highlighted by the attacks on September 11. Not only was it difficult for reliable information to make its way to our leaders, but even first responders on the ground were often cut off from each other because police and fire fighters were using separate networks to communicate. A single unified network would not only simplify information delivery, but ensure that in the event of a crisis all responders were able to communicate with each other.

While some will likely see the plan as more unchecked spending from the Obama administration, others would argue that "you have to spend money to make money." The wireless broadband plan would generate some additional revenue through wireless spectrum auctions, but the administration hopes the financial benefits will go beyond immediately collectible revenue. America is routinely at the cutting edge of Internet technology, but other countries are catching up. And our nation doesn't even rank in the top 20 in terms of broadband penetration. As much as 40-percent of the nation lacks a broadband Internet connection, and to reach Obama's stated goal of cutting that to just 2-percent within five years is going to take serious investment. But it's one that will be necessary if the U.S. expects to stay competitive well into the 21st century.

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