In a Saturday morning YouTube address, President-elect Barack Obama gave the nation a first glimpse at his administration's stimulus plan - and connecting everyone to the Internet was a main route on his roadmap to economic recovery.
"Here, in the country that invented the Internet, every child should have the chance to get online, and they'll get that chance when I'm President," he said. "Because that's how we'll strengthen America's competitiveness in the world."
That closing the digital divide ranks so highly on Obama's economic agenda might come as a surprise to some.
And it is not merely a matter of national pride. Getting more people connected is an issue with life-or-death consequences. Just 24 hours before Obama's speech, the U.S. Labor Department released figures showing an alarming unemployment rate of 6.7 percent. More than 533,000 jobs were lost November alone -- the worst job loss in 34 years.
The Internet could prove to be our path to economic salvation. A 2007 study by the Brookings Institution and MIT found that a one-digit increase in U.S. per-capita broadband penetration equates to an additional American 300,000 jobs. If our broadband penetration were as high as a country like Denmark, for example, we could expect more than 3 million additional jobs in America.
In making this pledge to connect everyone, Obama has bravely stepped into an Internet void left by his predecessor. Over the past eight years, the United States has fallen from fourth to 15th in the world in terms of high-speed Internet adoption. More than 40 percent of American homes are not connected to high-speed Internet services.
The Bush administration has been in the habit of making high-minded promises about the Internet while delivering massive handouts to the cable and phone giants who seem more interested in padding profits than building out connections to those who need them most.
In his Saturday address, Obama promised to install computers in classrooms and extend high-speed Internet to underserved areas. These goals echo those expressed by candidate Obama on the trail in 2008 and on his transition Web site www.change.gov.
President Bush made a similar sounding pledge in 2004 without delivering. The challenge for Obama -- and all of us -- is to dig into the details and really get the work done.
Lighting the Way
At Free Press, we have some ideas. Our policy shop just released a guide to media reform for the new administration and Congress, which can help forge a path to a better Internet.
The document calls upon the next Federal Communications Commission to set new speed standards for broadband; collect meaningful data on deployment; transition the Universal Service Fund toward digital infrastructure; and open networks to stimulate broadband competition.
Reforming the ways we allocate spectrum for Internet use is also a centerpiece. New ideas about sharing vacant airwaves and prying open existing networks should be prioritized. With more Americans using cell phones than the Internet, we need to make sure that our evolving mobile experience includes an open Internet as much as possible.
The Free Press document urges the new administration to lay the groundwork in Congress for new telecommunications law that recognizes the growing convergence of communications platforms.
"The existing statutes were designed for a bygone era -- when different services and technologies had different regulatory frameworks," it states. "Now we are in the era ... where virtually all media and communications move on the same digital networks. The law must catch up with technology and the market."
Internet for Everyone
Obama seems to get it more than his predecessor, and his screen-side chat strikes a hopeful note.
Sadly, there is still a huge mass of Americans who couldn't get online to hear it.
On the same day of Obama's YouTube pledge, InternetforEveryone.org -- a broad-based initiative to connect every American to a fast, open and affordable Internet -- had its first interactive town hall meeting to address this problem.
Hundreds gathered in Los Angeles to discuss ways to close the digital divide. This discussion will be combined with feedback from upcoming town hall meetings and delivered to the Obama administration and Congress as a tangible plan of action.
Obama is going to need to listen to those beyond the Beltway to best build a better Internet for everyone.
His pledge gives us the chance to have a long overdue public conversation about what the future of the Internet should look like. This is where the rubber meets the road on the information superhighway -- and it's Obama's best chance to deliver on his promises of change for millions.