Reaching for the American Dream by Connecting our Nation

As president, I will set a simple goal: every American should have the highest speed broadband access - no matter where you live, or how much money you have.
—Senator Barack Obama (D-IL)4

[T]hrough access to high-speed Internet services that facilitate interstate commerce, drive innovation, and promote educational achievements, there is the potential to change lives. These kinds of transformations of our way of life require the nfrastructure of modern communication, and government has a role to play in assuring every community in America can develop that infrastructure.
—Senator John McCain (R-AZ)5


Persuasive research indicates that connecting our nation to broadband will bring remarkable economic, social, cultural, personal, and other benefits to our citizens. Citing this research, a bipartisan chorus of America's leaders has for years advocated the deployment across our nation of robust and affordable broadband access to the Internet. Taken together, the rhetoric and research tell a compelling story; that in the Digital Age, universal, affordable, and robust broadband is the key to our nation's citizens reaching for - and achieving - the American Dream.

Yet, America has failed to deploy universal, affordable, and robust broadband. Compared to many of the other industrialized nations against which we compete in the increasingly interconnected global economy, our nation has steadily declined in rankings of broadband quality, availability, and price.

This failure is the result of a clear absence of strong federal leadership. "Broadband is no one's responsibility," Tim Wu has observed, "and the buck keeps getting passed between industry, Congress, the White House, and the [Federal Communications Commission]."6

Illustrating the lack of federal leadership, President George W. Bush in 2004 established as one of his Administration's goals "universal, affordable access for broadband technology by the year 2007," citing such significant benefits as a stronger, more competitive, and efficient economy; better pay and productivity for America's workers; improved health care; more educational and training opportunities; enhanced homeland security; and other benefits, noting that "[t]he spread of broadband will not only help industry, it'll help the quality of life of our citizens."7

As the year 2007 came to a close, the Bush Administration announced that the President's goal had been accomplished - all Americans had access to affordable broadband. Unfortunately, however, the Administration's claim turned out to be hollow and disingenuous; based on the near-universal availability of the same slow, expensive, and weather-dependent satellite "broadband"8 that had already been available back in 2004 when the President established his goal.9

The bottom line is that without strong federal leadership, deployment of robust and affordable broadband that would help all Americans realize the American Dream remains just that - a dream.

Our New Sputnik Moment

In October 1957, as the Soviet Union's Sputnik satellite sailed across the night sky, America suddenly realized it was no longer the unchallenged global leader in science and telecommunications. Strong federal leadership answered this challenge. A post-Sputnik sense of urgency resulted in stunning technological achievements - from landing a man on the moon, to building up the nation's nascent semiconductor and computer industries, to laying the foundations for what we know today as the Internet.

Today, no new satellite orbits the earth to sound the alarm to Americans. But our nation is once again facing a serious challenge to its global technological leadership, as well as its economic competitiveness. In an interconnected world made "flat," in Thomas Friedman's well-turned phrase,10 by broadband, America's competitors are executing well-conceived and -financed national strategies to dramatically increase their competitive advantage in broadband over the United States, which has no national broadband strategy.

A comprehensive review of the relative ranking of the United States versus the rest of the developed world concludes concludes unequivocally that "[t]he United States is behind in broadband deployment, speed and price. Despite what some advocates and analysts claim, the United States is behind in broadband performance and its rank has been falling since 2001."11 From a ranking of 4th in 2001 among the 30 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries in broadband penetration, the United States has "steadily fallen" to 15th in 2007. America also ranks 15th among OECD countries in broadband speed, averaging 4.9 Mbps, and 11th in the cost of broadband per Mbps.12

Most of the leading nations of Asia and Europe have adopted their own national broadband strategies and are aggressively building out their broadband, often utilizing ultra-fast 100 Mbps fiber-to-the-home connections that are over 100 times faster than the FCC's newly revised classification of "basic broadband" speed. Such fiber connections, similar to Verizon's FiOS project now being deployed in many cities in its service area, render obsolete the cable and DSL broadband connections that provide an average speed of 4.9 Mbps and dominate broadband service in the United States.

Faster broadband in other nations is "pushing open doors to Internet innovation that are likely to remain closed for years to come in much of the United States."

In Japan, most citizens have access to broadband connections that are 8 to 30 times as fast as those available in the United States, yet cost less per month. Broadcast-quality TV over the Internet, high-definition teleconferencing, remote telemedicine, and advanced telecommuting are all not merely possible, but commonplace in many other countries today.13

In the United States, however, the widespread availability of broadband robust enough to power these applications is years away. Indeed, what many Americans think of as "broadband" is in many other countries too slow and feeble to even be called "broadband."14 And, ominously, "the United States is likely to fall farther and farther behind the leading Asian and European countries on most key measures of success in broadband deployment."15

Adding to concerns over the state of broadband in America is the fact that our nation's growth rate in broadband adoption has tapered off to near zero, likely due to the nation's faltering economy and the high cost of broadband. For Americans who live in households with incomes under $20,000 annually, broadband penetration has actually fallen to 25 percent in early 2008 compared to 28 percent a year earlier.16 These are households that could benefit dramatically from the continuing education, job training, and jobsearch opportunities that access to broadband provides, as is described below.

The bottom line is that our nation is far from the goal of universal deployment of robust and affordable broadband that would enhance our competitiveness versus many other industrialized nations. As many nations boldly strategize their rapid advance into the Digital Age by energetically embracing and exploiting the potential of broadband, America is being left behind. This is our nation's new Sputnik moment. It demands strong federal leadership.

What's at Stake?

As if the loss of America's economic competitiveness were not alarming enough, our nation's failure to deploy universal, affordable, and robust broadband has meant that a wealth of tangible economic and quality-of-life benefits being enjoyed by citizens in other nations are denied to ours. These include:

  • Hundreds of Billions of Dollars in New Economic Development
  • Over a Million New, High-Paying Jobs
  • Increased Homeland Security and Public Safety
  • Better Health Care at Lower Cost
  • Enhanced Educational Opportunities
  • Reduced Energy Consumption and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Universal broadband that is affordable to all will also reinvigorate our democracy by connecting via the Internet all our citizens with each other, as well as with their government. The Internet provides an opportunity to include those who too often have been excluded from full participation in our economy and society, such as low-income, minority, rural, elderly, and disabled Americans. Using broadband technologies, all citizens could more easily and knowledgeably engage in civic affairs. Building out broadband to every American household, however, is not enough. All Americans must have access to the digital skills and tools necessary to realize broadband's enormous potential benefits: better jobs, freedom to telework, access to online education and training, remote monitoring of health issues, and so much more.

A National Broadband Strategy

Relying too heavily on the marketplace alone to deploy universal, affordable, and robust broadband has left millions of Americans without a robust and affordable connection to the Internet, denying them the opportunity to fully participate in - and take advantage of - the vast

benefits and advances of the Digital Age. To provide this opportunity, and to answer the challenge of our nation's new Sputnik moment, the new Administration must launch a well-planned, concerted national effort to deploy robust and affordable broadband to every corner of the nation. Without such an effort, paralleling that which deployed telephone service, electricity, and interstate highways across the nation, our citizens will fail to reap broadband's tremendous benefits and our nation will fall further behind its global competitors.

Starting on his first day in office, the new President should declare that the deployment of universal, affordable, and robust broadband Internet access to every American household is one of his Administration's top priorities. His Administration should then immediately begin the process of designing and successfully executing a coordinated and effective National Broadband Strategy (NBS), a "coherent roadmap of policies and goals that complement and accelerate efforts in the marketplace to achieve universal adoption of affordable high-speed Internet connections."17

It is vital to the success of the NBS that it include initiatives to eliminate the digital divide, and promote the adoption of transforming broadband technologies to address the difficult challenges faced by our nation in the areas of economic growth, job creation, health care, education, public safety, energy consumption and climate change, and others, as will be described later in this paper. When massive and wide-ranging solutions to these pressing national problems can be delivered to digitally-connected and Internet-savvy citizens, demand for robust broadband will increase substantially.

By promoting both the supply of and the demand for broadband, the NBS will establish a "virtuous circle" in which an increased supply of robust and affordable broadband stimulates creation of applications that produce wide-ranging, valuable social benefits that then causes citizens to demand even more robust and affordable broadband; which in turn stimulates greater investment in more robust broadband; which then stimulates the creation of even more beneficial applications that cause citizens to demand even more robust and affordable broadband. Strong federal leadership, expressed in a comprehensive NBS, is crucial to ending the stand-off between those ready to invest in the deployment of robust broadband once great technologies and applications emerge to take advantage of it, and those ready to invest in transforming technologies and applications and who are waiting for robust broadband to be built out.

By adopting a bold and imaginative action plan on Day One of his Administration to connect all of our citizens to robust and affordable broadband, the new President will enable America to catch up to and surpass our global competitors on broadband, while at the same time using technology and innovation to address our nation's critical challenges. He will deliver to all our citizens the opportunity they seek for their children and themselves: to reach for the American Dream in the Digital Age.


  1. On January 20, 2009, his first day in office, the new President of the United States should sign an Executive Order that gives high priority to exerting federal leadership on broadband policy. This Order should:
    1. Establish a National Broadband Strategy Commission, composed of members from the public, private, academic, nonprofit, and other sectors, that by January 1, 2010, should deliver to the President an ambitious, yet achievable, comprehensive National Broadband Strategy to deploy robust, affordable broadband to every household in America. The Commission should also lay out a roadmap and timetable to deploy within five years to the vast majority of American households modernized broadband networks that are as robust, reliable, and affordable as those of our global competitors.
    2. Appoint a White House-based Chief Technology Officer to work in conjunction with the Commission. The Chief Technology Officer (CTO) should take responsibility for the successful design and execution of the NBS throughout the public sector.
    3. Direct the Commission to include measurable deployment and subscribership goals in the NBS. The NBS developed by the Commission should set goals on broadband network deployment, subscribership, price, and speed. At a minimum, these goals should include:
      1. By the end of 2010, every household in America will have access to robust and affordable broadband.
      2. ii. By the end of 2015, the vast majority of American households will have affordable access to modernized broadband networks that are as robust as those of any other nation.
    4. Direct the Commission to propose broadband initiatives and applications that address the most pressing challenges facing our nation. As we discuss in subsequent sections, the demand for robust and affordable broadband will grow significantly if America utilizes broadband to:
      1. Modernize our economy to compete globally;
      2. Reduce energy consumption and carbon dioxide gas emissions and address the threats that energy insecurity and environmental degradation pose to our nation;
      3. Deliver better health care at lower costs by implementing telehealth and digital health information technology;
      4. Improve education through the use of advanced online technology tools;
      5. Build a 21st-century public safety and national security telecommunications system; and
      6. Increase government transparency and empower greater citizen participation in decision making.
  2. Establish a cabinet-level interagency task force to execute the NBS throughout executive branch departments and agencies. Modeled on the Information Infrastructure Task Force, this task force should be made up of highlevel representatives of federal agencies, including the Office of Management and Budget, in coordination with the CTO. The agencies should develop comprehensive plans and policies to quickly and effectively execute the NBS, including interagency efforts that will cut across bureaucratic silos and stovepipes.
  3. Direct the OMB to issue an annual report on the status of the execution of the National Broadband Strategy, with recommendations for additional steps and funding to ensure that the NBS realizes its goals.
  • The President should immediately on taking office promote policies to stimulate both demand for, and supply of, robust and affordable broadband, including:
    1. Direct the heads of all federal departments and agencies to take specific action to:
      1. Ensure that affordable, robust broadband is available to all Americans;
      2. Include the use of broadband in meeting the mission of their agencies;
      3. Cooperate with the National Broadband Strategy Commission, make the implementation of the NBS one of their highest priorities, and prepare action plans on initiatives their agencies are undertaking to help achieve the goals of the NBS; and
      4. Report annually to the President on the progress of these initiatives.
    2. Direct the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to create a national online
      broadband mapping system that will aggregate useful and highly granular data on the nationwide availability,
      speed, and price of broadband;
    3. Open underused spectrum currently reserved for both public and private use for a new generation of wireless devices that will provide robust broadband service over great distances and rough terrain without interference to existing licensed uses;
    4. Support and co-fund state and municipal broadband initiatives to encourage the build-out and support of next-generation broadband networks. Eliminate state and local impediments to state-, municipal-, and community- funded deployment of broadband.
    5. Support deployment of broadband to underserved communities and populations.
      1. Modernize the federal Universal Service Program to support affordable, universal, landline and wireless broadband,18 as well as the Rural Utility Broadband Loan and Loan Guarantee Program, Community Connect Broadband Grants Program, and similar programs to emphasize the build-out of next-generation broadband networks in rural areas.
      2. Stimulate the supply of broadband in low-income communities by requiring as a condition for receipt of federal funding that public housing and other public buildings have robust broadband access available to all residents and tenants.
      3. Initiate and expand programs to extend broadband to persons with disabilities, seniors, minorities, Native Americans, and other populations that are too often on the wrong side of the digital divide.
      4. Restore funding for the Technology Opportunities Program that will help develop transforming broadband applications to address the most significant and pressing challenges facing our society.
    6. Stimulate private sector investment in robust broadband.
      1. Accelerate depreciation of broadband equipment and tax credits for significant upgrades to existing network capacity.
      2. Issue federal "Broadband Bonds" to finance, in partnership with private entities, deployment in un- and under-served areas, as recommended in California by that state's Broadband Task Force.19
      3. Anchor Tenancy: Direct the General Services Administration's Public Buildings Service to assess anchor tenancy opportunities as a part of every agency's process to negotiate or renegotiate a telecommunications lease. Anchor tenancy can act as a catalyst, drawing providers to locations that have little or no access to broadband. By Executive Order, the President could require that agencies assess whether anchor tenancy could draw private providers to a surrounding unserved community or upgrade existing network infrastructure, if no other plans exist to do so.
      4. Collocation Facilities: Direct the General Services Administration's Public Buildings Service to offer, at cost, in un- or under-served areas, small spaces on federally-owned properties on which collocation facilities can be constructed. This will both reduce one of the cost barriers and create "carrier neutral" facilities into which companies can connect with regional and other networks that connect to major Internet connection points in metropolitan areas.
  • Support open access to the Internet for all users, service providers, content providers, and application providers to the maximum extent possible, while recognizing that network operators must have the right to manage their networks responsibly, pursuant to clear and workable guidelines and standards.
  • Support federal leadership to eliminate issues and concerns that deter citizens from accessing the Internet. Promote online safety, privacy, and network security. Strongly enforce laws against online criminals, spammers, promoters of frauds, and other illegal actors.