Obama Budget Will Include $10.7 Billion for Emergency Networks

President Barack Obama’s budget will include $10.7 billion to build a nationwide wireless network for emergency workers and $5 billion to help Americans get mobile access to high-speed Internet service.

Obama would pay for the networks with $27.8 billion from auctioning airwaves relinquished by television broadcasters, and still have $9.6 billion available for reducing the federal deficit, Jason Furman, deputy director of the White House National Economic Council, said during a conference call yesterday.

The president will outline the proposal during a trip today to Marquette, Michigan, where access to high-speed Internet has helped local businesses reach global markets, according to an administration statement. The initiative fleshes out a pledge he made in the State of the Union address to make wireless high-speed Internet, or broadband, available to 98 percent of Americans within five years as a way to accelerate economic growth and job creation.

“High-speed Internet allows small businesses to reach markets beyond the one that they’re in, in the next town, in the next state or even in a different country,” Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a Feb. 8 interview. “We need to take that as seriously as we took electricity and telephone service in the 20th century.”

The FCC has proposed the government conduct auctions in which broadcasters voluntarily surrender airwaves in return for part of the proceeds. Buyers may include Verizon Wireless, AT&T Inc., Sprint Nextel Corp. and Deutsche Telekom AG’s T-Mobile unit.

Paying for Networks

That would raise enough revenue for the government to pay for the public-safety network, the wireless improvements, and devote $3 billion to communications research -- as well as reduce the deficit, Furman and U.S. chief technology officer Aneesh Chopra told reporters on the conference call. Some of the $10.7 billion set aside for public-safety wireless networks is already included in the $3 billion innovation fund, Furman said.

“The policy as a whole makes better use of our existing spectrum, better use of our existing resources” Furman said.

Concerns about the deficit, forecast by the Congressional Budget Office to hit $1.5 trillion this year, prompted Obama to propose a five-year freeze on discretionary federal spending outside security. Still, the president said he wants to shift more money into infrastructure, education and research by cutting other programs more deeply. The White House budget for fiscal year 2012 is scheduled to be released Feb. 14.

U.S. Infrastructure

Infrastructure includes building wireless towers and laying fiber to compete globally, Genachowski said.

The U.S. ranked 40th out of 40 countries in a study ranking innovative capacity and competitiveness, he said in a Feb. 7 speech in Washington. “We risk falling behind our global competitors if we don’t accelerate our rate of progress.”

In Marquette, Obama will see a demonstration of Northern Michigan University’s WiMAX system, a wireless network that has facilitated distance learning for students. He will also meet with local business owners to talk about how broadband access has helped them expand their businesses and hire more employees, according to the White House.

The president has said that investments in areas like technology could help bring down the U.S. unemployment rate, which was 9 percent last month. Michigan’s unemployment rate was 11.7 percent in December, down from 14.5 percent a year before.

In his State of the Union address, Obama said expanding high-speed Internet access “isn’t about faster Internet or fewer dropped calls. It’s about connecting every part of America to the digital age.”

Swing States

Today’s visit marks Obama’s sixth to Michigan since taking office, according to the White House. It’s his third to a political swing state that will figure in the 2012 presidential election, following trips Feb. 3 to Pennsylvania and Jan. 26 to Wisconsin.

All three states “are suffering badly” economically and they have lots of newly elected House Republicans, said Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

Schiller said the president is making a calculation that he can pressure newly elected Republicans to show voters what they’re doing to help their district’s economies and embarrass them if they stand in the way of his proposals.

“There is no better place to wage a political battle than in your opponents’ backyard,” she said.

Obama carried Michigan in the 2008 presidential election winning by 16 percentage points. Two years later in the midterm elections, Republican Rick Snyder, former president of computer-maker Gateway Inc., won Michigan’s governorship, replacing Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm. Republicans won nine of Michigan’s 15 U.S. House seats. Neither of their two Senate seats was up for re-election.

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