Obama's broadband stimulus: Will wireless fit the bill?

When President Obama said during his to Congress this week that "laying broadband" was going to one of the main priorities of his recently-passed stimulus , the first question that comes to mind is, "What sort of broadband?"

Although the government has allotted US$7.2 billion for broadband deployment in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the bill does not specify what sort of technology the money will be spent on. Rather, it will enable tech companies, telecom companies and ISPs to compete for broadband grants that will be administered by both the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the United States Department of Agriculture. And with so many different types of existing and emerging broadband technologies out there right now, it seems that both federal agencies will have a wide array of options to choose from when deciding how to dole out the cash.

broadband technologies such as should play a major role in any national broadband infrastructure because of their ability to cover large areas with a single base station, thus providing a more cost-effective alternative to deploying fiber-to-the-home in sparsely-populated areas. Harold Feld, the senior vice president for the open media advocacy group Media Access Project, says that one wireless technology that could really take off in the wake of the broadband stimulus package is 802.11y, a new Wi-Fi standard approved by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) last September that runs over the 3.65 GHz band.

The good thing about the 3.65GHz spectrum, says Feld, is that the technology is "lightly licensed," meaning that prospective operators can obtain a nationwide license for the spectrum for a comparatively smaller amount of money than they'd pay for an exclusive spectrum license. Feld says that the spectrum has a higher power level than today's available unlicensed spectrum and that it can provide good backhaul in rural areas in the Southwestern and Southern United States. And because the 802.11y standard meets the FCC's requirements for a contention based protocol -- that is, a protocol that can allow for multiple users to share the same spectrum -- it won't create controversy over potential interference.

But while technology operating over 3.65GHz holds promise, it isn't a magic bullet to connect all areas in the United States. Brett Glass, the owner and founder of the Wyoming-based ISP Lariat Networks, says that companies in his area can't use the 3.65GHz spectrum because they are located within 150 kilometers of an exclusion zone that the government has set up to avoid spectrum interference with satellites. And while most of these exclusion zones located on the along the east and west coasts, there are also areas of states such as West Virginia, Tennessee and Texas where ISPs can't operate on the 3.65GHz band.

In addition to 802.11y, will likely generate buzz as potential national broadband solutions. As an IEEE wireless data standard that typically operates on the 2.5GHz band, WiMAX has been promoted as a potential "third pipe" that could compete with DSL and cable for last-mile connectivity. Sprint last year began WiMAX services commercially for the first time in the United States and has achieved downlink speeds ranging from 3.7M to 5Mbps and uplink speeds ranging from 1.8M to 2.6Mbps. Globally, is projected by semiconductor vendor Intel to be available to 800 million people by 2010.