Broadband: Very Stimulating

From great crisis comes great opportunity. At least if you're a lobbyist in Washington.

And while Chrysler plants are shutting down and journalists are being sacked by the thousands, influence-peddlers inside the Beltway are gearing up to get a piece of what could be a $1 trillion -- with a t -- economic stimulus package.

The legislation is being written as you read this, and the new Congress wants to get it on President Obama's desk right after he's sworn into office in January. It's a lot of money, it's moving fast, and taxpayers must beware of profligacy and pork.

Much of the package is sure to be devoted to what we traditionally think of as infrastructure: roads and bridges and school repairs. And that's definitely needed. But if we really want to jump start the 21st-century economy, we need to look beyond the interstates and start investing in the information superhighway.

Nearly half of U.S. households don't have a high-speed Internet connection. And without a massive public investment, we'll keep falling behind the rest of the world and failing to close the digital divide.

Building better broadband is no bailout. It's a down payment on our digital future. According to a 2007 study by the Brookings Institution, boosting U.S. broadband adoption by 20 percent -- putting America on par with a country like Denmark -- would create 3 million new jobs.

Fortunately, Obama is saying the right things. "It is unacceptable that the United States ranks 15th in the world in broadband adoption," he said in his Dec. 6 weekly address. "Here, in the country that invented the Internet, every child should have the chance to get online."

The challenge is turning that rhetoric into reality. This week, my colleague S. Derek Turner of Free Press published a detailed proposal for a $44 billion package that would bring world-class broadband to every corner of the country and restore America's place as a global technology leader.

Here are a few elements to look for in any final legislation that will signal the difference between bold new vision and just another boondoggle:

Future-proof speeds. Americans pay far more for much slower speeds than countries like South Korea, Japan and France. The stimulus shouldn't be used to install quickly dated technology. This is the moment to build "future-proof" broadband capable of delivering actual (not just advertised) speeds of 100 Megabits/second (Mbps) for downloads and uploads.

Universal service.
The United States has long funded programs to bring phone service to rural areas, and it's time update those programs to support wired and wireless broadband networks. Turner estimates that with $20 billion over the next three years, we could close the rural-urban digital divide.

Fiber competition. Super-high-speed Internet will be delivered by fiber-optic cables to the home -- and the big cost is digging up the streets and sidewalks. The Swiss have implemented an innovative program that requires their dominant telecom company to deploy multiple strands of fiber -- one for their own services, the others to be sold to third-party competitors. In America, this could be an innovative way to spur innovation and prevent a monopoly.

Connected kids. Every child online in 2009 has a nice ring to it -- though the end of Obama's first term is a more realistic goal. We shouldn't just connect schools and libraries; we should turn them into Wi-Fi networks serving whole neighborhoods. Students already take home textbooks; let's give them laptops. And for low-income families who don't live near their schools, there should be tax breaks for Internet access.

New projects only. To ensure stimulus funding isn't paying for things the telecom companies already intend to build, companies must disclose their current capital spending plans and submit to audits. This effort should fund projects wouldn't have occurred for years without public investment. And the benefits should be available to all providers, including municipalities, nonprofits and new competitors.

No blank checks. We're talking billions, and the big phone and cable companies aren't going to keep their promises without strict oversight and accountability. There's been a lot of talk about open government, and the public needs to see their money isn't being spent to prop up stock prices.

Done right with the proper safeguards, this effort would immediately put tens of thousands of people to work creating new equipment, installing high-speed lines, and training people to use the new technology. Over the long term, it means millions more jobs and hundreds of billions of dollars in every sector of the economy.

In other words, if we hope to get out of this economic crisis, using the stimulus to bring Internet to everyone is an opportunity we can't afford to miss.

A version of this post originally appeared in
The Guardian, where there are no blank cheques for fibre.

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