Big Government’s Next Frontier: Wi-Fi

Published May 31, 2016

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

“If you can do this in the snowy U.P.,” he said, referring to Northern Michigan University’s Marquette location in the state’s Upper Peninsula, “We can do this all across America.”

NMU is doing just fine, thank you very much, in extending a wi-fi 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 nonstudent 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 wi-fi spending. He 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 wi-fi.

Obama has already been “investing” millions in rural wi-fi as part of his mammoth stimulus bill. …This kind of largesse has attracted the attention of incoming Republicans, who have scheduled oversight hearings on how this money is being spent.

Greedy for Government Intervention
“Before we target any more of our scarce taxpayer dollars for broadband,” Michigan Rep. and House Energy Committee chairman Fred Upton (R) 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.”
Obama added: “We want to invest in the next generation of high-speed Internet” implying—as with electric cars—that he knows what the next generation is.

Greedy for government intervention, the White House claims “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 nonprofit wealth—will provide rural coverage as they have at NMU.

Hijacking Private Model

When I ask why Marquette’s private, local model should be hijacked as a model for federal expenditures, an NMU spokesman says 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.

Bad Examples        
Touting wi-fi infrastructure as the next generation’s answer to government-funded railroad and interstate systems, Obama used his Marquette speech 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 wi-fi to sell their products.

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 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….

Wi-Fi Security Deemed Insufficient
In truth, NMU’s wi-fi is a nonprofit venture and cannot provide commercial access to local businesses. Not that they would want insecure wi-fi, anyway. Private tech companies such as AT&T and Charter have been serving Marquette businesses with cable broadband for more than a decade.

Getz Vice President for Marketing John Spigorelli said his company uses both AT&T and Charter lines for online commerce, explaining they would “never do transactions on wi-fi, due to liability issues with customer credit cards.”

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

That should be a real concern for taxpayers, who are being asked to spend—”invest,” to use the president’s euphemistic term—on a new federal wi-fi program under false pretenses.

Broadband or Wireless?
A White House spokesman said despite the disconnect in the President’s message, his speech was about “making broadband more widely available.” But if that were so, Obama’s program would be called the National Broadband Initiative, not the National Wireless Initiative.

In addiiton, it was commerce that ostensibly brought the President and Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) to this remote Yooper town. Sure, the president touted wi-fi’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.

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

Henry Payne ([email protected]) is editor of and cartoonist for the Detroit News. Reprinted and excerpted by permission from