As the birthplace of the Internet, there are those who continuously clamor for the United States to be "Number One" when it comes to broadband. At a crossroads where we are figuring out the best way to manage the growth of our country's broadband, a fair question arises: What is America's broadband agenda today?
The desire for broadband Internet to be available to everyone wanting it is a noble and worthwhile goal, but in order to be successful it requires a set of interconnected strategies. If we build it, they won't just come. Giving someone a device to access the Internet won't do it either. It requires a combination of infrastructure, device availability and education, in the form of digital literacy and other public awareness efforts, to get us to that goal.
A recent report by Ev Ehrlich of the Progressive Policy Institute, Shaping the Digital Age: A Progressive Broadband Agenda, sets out a series of interconnected strategies for a "progressive broadband agenda" reflecting some of the nuances that are inherent in achieving the goal of meaningful Internet use for everyone in the United States.
Ehrlich first explores "liberating" spectrum. While mentioning the Federal Communication Commission's spectrum auction, Ehrlich discusses the non-use of spectrum by the public sector, such as that by large federal agencies including the Department of Defense. If we dug around and did an audit of use and non-use, we might discover some much needed spectrum that could be a boon for facilitating broadband infrastructure.
Regulation is often a hot button topic when it comes to the Internet. While the debate around some forms of regulation will have its day in court soon, regulation that may prohibit the free and innovative use of broadband must be explored prospectively. Are there local, state and federal laws that may have unintended consequences in the broadband age? If we want to bolster the availability of telehealth, what might be standing in the way? How do we ensure rural and minority groups have broadband access and how to we measure the impact it has on those communities? Has an active discussion begun on how we balance the availability of broadband with the original intent of some of the laws that may be on our books? Ninety-one percent of Americans have access to wired broadband speeds of at least 10 Mbps downstream, and 81 percent of Americans have access to similarly fast mobile wireless broadband, according to a 2013 White House report.
Addressing the perceptions of broadband is also important. Ehrlich brings up a National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and Pew Research study where respondents claimed broadband simply was not "relevant" to their lives. While one can see where someone who has never used the Internet may be coming from, the issue is a combination of relevance meets wariness of the unknown.
Broadband will inherently become more relevant, for example, with the proliferation of individual devices to students. If a school district implements a "one iPad per child" policy, broadband will increasingly become more relevant to entire families. Placing an iPad in a student's hands doesn't just change the way they learn, it changes what they learn from vast and endless sources of information. The potential benefit on future generations is immeasurable, but rest assured one thing is for certain, it will change the way that America competes on an international playing field. In these cases, education, specifically digital literacy education, will become paramount.
Privacy concerns remain a major obstacle. Many non-Internet users have trust issues when it comes to the Internet. They are afraid of sharing any form of personal information online. Bolstered consumer privacy protection will be critical. Information is a commodity, and we must ensure protections are in place to safeguard new Internet users.
Ehrlich finally explores a concept of an empowered Federal Communications Commission to embrace 21st century leadership responsibilities when it comes to the Internet and broadband. We are sorely in need of a "guide" in making sure technology can reach everyone and be meaningfully used. A national digital literacy policy is needed if we are to truly make sure people can use the Internet if they want to. Over sixty million Americans will need to be reached in any awareness and education efforts.
With broadband, we are looking to do what's fair and just for everyone. While it would be much easier if there were a straightforward solution, a national conversation that explores all facets of America's broadband agenda is critical.