Obama, Mobile Broadband Won’t Save Us

Last night in his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama promoted jobs, high-speed rail and high-speed wireless access. I’m all for fast wireless broadband, but relying on wireless to solve this nation’s looming broadband gap is like relying on low-fat Twinkies to solve the nation’s obesity problem. Mobile broadband is a poor substitute for the faster wireline broadband; it’s more expensive, and it’s not subject to network neutrality rules, which means anyone surfing the web on a wireless connection may end up with a fragmented and bastardized Internet experience.

In his speech, Obama said:

Within the next five years, we will make it possible for business to deploy the next generation of high-speed wireless coverage to 98 percent of all Americans. This isn’t just about a faster Internet and fewer dropped calls. It’s about connecting every part of America to the digital age. It’s about a rural community in Iowa or Alabama where farmers and small business owners will be able to sell their products all over the world. It’s about a firefighter who can download the design of a burning building onto a handheld device; a student who can take classes with a digital textbook; or a patient who can have face-to-face video chats with her doctor.

That’s picturesque, but ignores the reality of mobile broadband today and the coming reality of the mobile web. We’ve covered this pretty exhaustively, but it’s worth addressing again as folks get all excited about Obama getting behind mobile broadband. Mobile broadband is a wonderful solution for expanding access to broadband for less money than a wireline connection will cost, but mobile broadband tends to cost more per month, offer lower speeds (even Verizon’s (s vz) 4G network will offer 5-12 Mbps as opposed to Verizon’s FiOS network, which offers up to 100 Mbps), and the fact that wireless providers don’t have to abide by network neutrality rules is hugely problematic.

I understand that for some people mobile broadband is the only means of accessing the web, but I don’t think the U.S. should accept that as an optimal solution for rural broadband. Especially as we start talking about Universal Service Fund reform and how to support expanding broadband access to those that don’t have it, I’d be leery of an agenda that attempts to subsidize or push wireless connectivity at the expense of cheaper and more future-proof wireline networks.

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