Barack Obama checks his BlackBerry during the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign. ((Jae C. Hong/Associated Press))

The U.S. will create incentives to free up more radio frequencies for mobile broadband and spend $5 billion to build next-generation high-speed wireless networks in rural areas, President Barack Obama says.

"This isn't just about faster internet … It's about connecting every corner of America to the digital age," Obama said during an address at Northern Michigan University in Marquette on Thursday afternoon.

"It's how we'll spark new innovation, new investment, new jobs ... We can't expect tomorrow's economy to take root using yesterday's infrastructure."

Radio spectrum

Individual ranges of radio frequencies are allocated to private companies and government agencies for specific uses to prevent interference between multiple users. These uses may include broadcasting, satellite communications, navigation and mobile communications. In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration jointly manage the spectrum. In Canada, the spectrum is managed by Industry Canada.

In his speech, Obama likened the expansion of wireless networks and the opportunities they will create to government initiatives that expanded the railroad, electricity and highways across the country in earlier decades.

He noted that while 90 per cent of homes in South Korea have broadband internet, just 65 per cent of U.S. households subscribe to such services.

"When it comes to high-speed internet, the lights are still off in one-third of our households."

Wireless broadband will give rural residents access to information and markets around the world, and allow young people in rural areas to seek new opportunities without leaving their hometowns, Obama said.

Obama committed in his state of the union address in January to make fourth-generation (4G) high-speed wireless services available to at least 98 per cent of Americans within five years. Currently, 95 per cent have 3G wireless services.

Details of the new plan include:

  • A goal to free up 500 MHz of radio spectrum, mainly for mobile broadband. Obama proposes financial incentives to encourage companies and government agencies to release some of their spectrum they hold so it can be auctioned off for this purpose.
  • A one-time $5-billion investment in the construction of 4G networks in rural areas. Obama noted that private companies don't expand there on their own because it isn't profitable. 
  • A $3-billion fund to support research, testing and development of "key technological developments" to enable and take advantage of the 4G rollout.
  • $10.7 billion to develop and deploy a nationwide interoperable wireless network for public safety and emergency services.
  • Using $27.8 billion raised from the proposed auctions of government and commercial spectrum to cut the national deficit by $9.6 billion over the next decade.