The Blog

The Future of Broadband: Why Fix It if It's Not Broken

More work needs to be done to truly maximize the benefits of technology by paying more attention to America's "digital divide" and the ways in which we can work to bridge it.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Since its creation, the Internet has been a conduit for economic growth, enhanced social progress and generated groundbreaking -- world-changing -- innovations. However, more work needs to be done to truly maximize the benefits of this technology by paying more attention to America's "digital divide" and the ways in which we can work to bridge it.

Hindsight is always 20/20 and looking back, we can find the roadmap to our Internet policy future.

During the early years of the Internet, then-President Bill Clinton and FCC Chairman William Kennard understood that encouraging innovation through market competition would be most beneficial to consumers. In a 1999 speech to the Federal Communications Bar in California, Chairman Kennard noted this concept:

"The fertile fields of innovation across the communications sector and around the country are blooming because from the get-go we have taken a deregulatory, competitive approach to our communications structure -- especially the Internet."

This approach fostered significant investment -- American broadband providers have invested $1.2 trillion over the last 15 years deploying and maintaining broadband networks. These companies have invested more than six times the amount spent on the U.S. space shuttle program. As another point of comparison, U.S. broadband investments by telephone and cable companies from 1997-2009 accounted for more than one-third of all broadband infrastructure investments made by all 34 OECD countries combined during that period.

The Internet policy prescription outlined by the Clinton Administration has been working. Unlike so many points of debate today, Democrats and Republicans have continued this concept that continues to provide the right prescriptions today.

Recently, economist Ev Erlich, former Undersecretary of Commerce in the Clinton administration, and the Progressive Policy Institute released a must-read paper on broadband policy, "Shaping the Digital Age: A Progressive Broadband Agenda." The paper outlines an agenda that would return broadband policy to its progressive roots by:

"(F)inishing the job of creating a truly national high-speed network, using the remarkable capabilities of broadband to improve education, health care, government, and other social sectors, creating the terms on which more connectivity can be created (for example, liberating spectrum), and protecting the individual right to privacy using both legal means and market forces."

What do all of these policies have in common? They will deliver real benefits to Americans in both urban to rural America. Expanding broadband availability and improving adoption rates should be at the heart of any progressive broadband policy agenda.

Ehrlich also advises progressives to keep their eye on the ball and not let debates over divisive issues like "net neutrality" distract from more important goals, as this issue "does nothing to address the leading obstacles to a ubiquitous broadband Internet: Indifference and the absence of computers."

This point is extremely relevant because this fall many policymakers and advocates will be tempted to relive the net neutrality debates of that past as the D.C. Circuit Court hears oral arguments in Verizon's challenge to the FCC's Open Internet Order it passed in December of 2010. Verizon is asserting the FCC lacks jurisdiction to impose such regulatory restrictions on the Internet.

Regardless of the outcome of this case, we must remain focused on broadband policy issues that are truly important -- putting broadband at the fingertips of every American. This means we must turn our attention to driving broadband adoption in order to impact critical sectors of the economy, like education and healthcare.

With so much riding on the ability of communities to access the Internet, the main question remains: How do we continue making strides towards bridging America's digital divide? Our lawmakers play a central role, and it is important that they institute policies that encourage increased adoption while letting divisive political issues take a backseat.

Whether it's equipping every student, K through 12 with a computer, making more spectrum available to keep our wireless industry growing or moving more government services online, we need policies that demonstrate the value proposition for all communities.

The Internet is revolutionizing society and the digital divide continues to shrink thanks in large part to the light touch regulatory framework that Democratic Chairman Kennard set in motion. But we still have some work to do to connect more Americans. Progressives today should remember how we got here and how far we've come and heed Ehrlich's advice to keep our focus on what really matters to people.