Faster Facebook or Accurate Forecasts?

The Obama administration’s hunger for wireless broadband spectrum reminds me of a junkie seeking their next fix – they’ll do anything to get more.
In addition to freezing applications for rural low-power DTV stations and threatening to appropriate spectrum from the General Mobile Radio Service (think two-way radio applications, such as those used by industry and public safety agencies), a new proposal would trim the spectrum allocated to weather satellites.
Those of you living east of the Rockies this week got a taste of a “megastorm” which swept the country; the pressure-center of this continental weather-maker was “one of the deepest…ever observed in the continental U.S., outside of a hurricane.” Fortunately, it transited a land mass; if it were over water, this weather system would have qualified as a Category 3 storm.
As a former meteorology major (who transferred because calculus proved impenetrable), the importance of satellite imagery is difficult to understate. Satellite-collected meteorological data has revolutionized the forecast business. Whereas surface observations and radar data can provide information to make forecasts measured in hours, satellite data allows meteorologists to forecast dangerous conditions days or weeks in advance, and monitor nationwide weather systems like the recent megastorm in real time.
Meteorology saves lives. Just because it’s an easy-icon click away on your smartphone doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of intelligence and technology that goes into your weather app.
The idea that we would downgrade the applied science of meteorology in a time of radical climate change for broadband capacity is myopic at best. Climate change is real; it is a national-security issue; and we won’t be able to invest, consume, or tweet our way out of it.
Fortunately, the rest of the world seems to agree.
Arguably, the internet’s major strength is its ability to be multimedia. Its most apparent weakness is a dearth of multimodal distribution. Most homes and businesses do not use wireless broadband; copper and cable in the ground still provides the vast majority of last-mile connections. Investing in upgrading our wired broadband infrastructure is just as necessary as finding more spectrum to expand the wireless vector.
Over-reliance on a single distribution mode for any important communications technology is dangerous, and the only reason why the nation’s last-mile infrastructure languishes at a pre-fiber level is the oligopoly which controls the conduits. The technology is there: all that’s missing is the political and economic will to build it.
And while you’re at it, meteorologists could use some attention, too: while the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration just last month finished launching new satellites to replace dying ones, the doppler radars used by forecast offices nationwide is the flower of 1988 technology.