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Republicans Raise Yellow Flags on President's Wireless Plan

Reaction came at the speed of, well, broadband, to the President's announcement of details of his national wireless plan, which aims to reclaim enough spectrum from broadcasters and others to get 4G wireless broadband service to 98% of America within five years, including via a one-time $5 billion investment in wireless deployment.

The President is also proposing to allocate, rather than auction, spectrum for a national, interoperable communications network, and pay for its operation out of spectrum auction proceeds.

Republicans Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Greg Walden (R- Ore.), who chair, respectively the House Energy & commerce Committee and Communications & Internet Subcommittee, raised some yellow caution flags. "Before we target any more of our scarce taxpayer dollars for broadband, it is critical to examine whether the money already being spent is having an impact, as well as how we can minimize waste, fraud, and abuse. Let's ensure our resources are being used wisely," said Upton.

The President's announcement came the same day that Walden's subcommittee held an oversight hearing on the $7 billion in broadband funds the president's stimulus bill has allocated for broadband buildout grants and loans. The inspector generals of both agencies overseeing the programs, Commerce and Agriculture, expressed concerns about the possibilities of waste, fraud and abuse inherent in such large and complicated programs.

"I laud the goal but believe we must be cost-efficient about how we go about it and be realistic in our expectations of what taxpayers can afford," said Walden.

As to the interoperable network, Upton pointed out the FCC had recommended auctioning rather than simply allocating the spectrum, but said: "Ultimately, we all share the same goal of creating a nationwide, interoperable public safety network." On that he seemed to be on the same page as FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, who earlier in the week signaled that was the FCC's priority as well.

Upton added that he wanted to make sure the government could pay for all these infrastructure investments--the President also plans to spend 10 billion-plus for government to pay for the public safety network, and another 3 billion for wireless R&D.

"While I would welcome most any plan that actually raises $27.8 billion," said Upton, "I would caution against turning around and spending the majority of it in the current economic environment."

The spectrum auction is actually supposed to raise much more than that figure, but the administration has factored in payments to broadcasters and other commercial users being asked to voluntarily give up spectrum to wireless, as well as for relocation costs for government entities who are giving up 115 MHz of their own. The government is looking for 130 MHz from broadcasters, or about a third of their remaining allocation.