Big Government’s Next Frontier: Wi-Fi

Published May 31, 2016

Voters may have slapped Democrats for their spendaholic overreach in November, but 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 NMU’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 non-student 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. Obama 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 WiFi.

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 representative and House Energy Committee chairman Fred Upton 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.”
President 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 that “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 non-profit wealth — will provide rural coverage as they have at NMU. When I ask why Marquette’s private, local model should be hijacked as a model for federal expenditures, an NMU spokesman says that 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.…

Obama’s Disconnect
Touting Wi-Fi 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 Wi-Fi 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 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….

‘Invest’ Under False Pretenses
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 like AT&T and Charter have been serving Marquette business with cable broadband for over a decade.

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 Wi-Fi, 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 Wi-Fi 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 Senator 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.

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