The Sputnik Lesson: We Can’t Win the Broadband Race by Slowing Down

Ten years ago, Charles Benton harkened back to the chilly night of October 4, 1957 – when Russia’s Sputnik first flew overhead – to warn us that we faced a generational challenge to ensure America’s scientific leadership in the world. The goal, articulated by President George W. Bush in 2004, was achieving universal, affordable broadband access by 2007. Sadly, ten years later, we’ve failed to reach the goal – and instead of rising to the challenge, policymakers are proposing to lower the bar in order to declare “mission accomplished.”

Broadband is the essential communications medium of the 21st century. Universal broadband availability would unleash hundreds of billions in economic growth and create high-wage jobs. Broadband-enabled opportunities for education, health care, and agriculture can be a great equalizer. But so long as some communities don’t have broadband, they’ll fall further and further behind. Bridging the Digital Divide in these communities will unleash a new wave of innovations, transforming almost every aspect of our lives.

Since the Bush years, we have made progress. Between 2015 and 2016 alone, 21 million Americans gained access to broadband. But there are still 34 million people that do not have at least one broadband provider in their community, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Today, 28 percent of rural American households lack access to broadband.

Chairman Pai’s strategy to win the race is to throw our greatest economic engine into reverse

President Trump’s FCC Chairman Ajit Pai says that closing the Digital Divide is a top priority for him. But he’s proposing an odd solution: instead of deploying new networks to the hundreds of communities that lack access today, Chairman Pai is considering a new definition of broadband so slow connections will count in the FCC’s measures of high-speed Internet access.

Ten years ago, Charles Benton wrote, “Sputnik forced us to ask how we can regain our lead in outer space. Today we must urgently ask how to regain our lead in cyberspace.” Unfortunately, Chairman Pai’s strategy to win the race is to throw our greatest economic engine into reverse.

Our nation’s commitment to ubiquitous and affordable communications has never been more important. Like putting a man on the moon, making broadband as common as telephone service must be our national goal. We will only enjoy an information technology revolution if we preserve and strengthen our guarantee of universal, affordable communication access for all Americans.

Ten years ago, Charles Benton called for 1) a comprehensive, national, digital strategy, 2) a Broadband Innovation Fund that invests in harnessing the power of broadband and information technology to boost education, reduce health care costs, encourage telecommuting, reduce greenhouse emissions, transform our emergency communication infrastructure, improve homeland security, and raise standards of living, and 3) extending broadband’s reach to those who can benefit most.

In 2010, the FCC delivered Connecting America: The National Broadband Plan. But seven years later under Chairman Pai, there is no mention of the plan’s goals of ubiquitous, affordable, high-capacity broadband. And Congress has failed to consider the recommendations for additional funding to extend broadband to the hardest to reach communities.

In response to our first Sputnik moment, we rallied the nation’s resources around a comprehensive strategy to regain our leadership. We need the same sense of urgency today to power American innovation and ignite growth. The U.S. must lead the world in broadband innovation and investment and take every appropriate steps to ensure all Americans have access to modern, high-performance broadband and the benefits it enables. We need policies that foster competition and ensure universal access. We can’t rise to the challenge by lowering the bar.

By Adrianne B. Furniss.