No Single Person Can Build the Roads and Networks...

No Single Person Can Build the Roads and Networks…

The single biggest story this week, of course, is the story you already know: On January 21, 2013, at 11:55 AM Eastern Time, President Barack Obama delivered his Second Inaugural Address from the steps of the U.S. Capitol. The address called on the nation to work together to meet the challenges we all face -- the cost of health care and the size of our deficit, climate change and transitioning to sustainable energy sources, ending wars and winning the peace, ensuring civil rights and personal safety, and creating a path to citizenship for new Americans. But our focus today are a few lines that perked the ears of many an observer of our nation’s telecommunications policy and the technology sector.

Back in early November, we looked at election results and the agenda moving forward. On Election Night, the President identified immigration and American leadership in technology and discovery and innovation as two key issues for the nation. This week, President Obama made a brief mention about the need for high-skilled immigration reform during his address, arguing that foreign-born engineers and graduates with advanced degrees should be able to stay in the U.S. and join the workforce rather than be forced to return to their home countries. "Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country," President Obama said.

The issue is a cornerstone policy priority for technology companies, which argue that they struggle to fill positions for engineering and research jobs because most applicants don't have the requisite skills for these positions. These companies also argue that they want to keep this talent in the U.S. rather than lose it to competitors abroad.

The technology community was quick to praise the President. "From innovation to immigration, from the power of technology to transform our society to the power of our imagination to find solutions to long-standing challenges, the President’s inaugural address spoke to the heart of our sector’s shared priorities," said Tom Gavin, vice president of external affairs at the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI). The Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) lauded Obama for promoting tech initiatives over the years and said Obama's inaugural address aligned with its policy agenda for the year. TIA President Grant Seiffert said the President indicated that "he is committed to using technology to remake government, reform education and empower citizens." "He deserves praise for advancing this commitment and recognizing the incredible economic and societal value of technology," Seiffert said. "Many of the goals he expressed today are shared in our own innovation agenda, and we look forward to working closely with the Obama administration over the next four years."

Writing in the New York Times on January 24, former-White House aide Susan Crawford also applauded the President for recognizing that digital communication networks — especially— can be a powerful economic engine. The President said:

No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores.

For telecom policy wonks, the inclusion of the word “networks” is key. But, as Crawford points out, we are far away from being able to realize the vision of high-capacity fiber networks reaching American homes and businesses. She warns that the U.S. is ceding the advantage such technology offers to other countries. Crawford lays out the problem:

  • Both the wireless and wired markets for high-speed Internet access have become heavily concentrated,
  • Neither market is subject to substantial competition nor oversight,
  • Too few powerful companies wield enormous influence over policy making, and
  • These companies prevent local officials from encouraging competition.

Headlines’ favorite Stacey Higginbotham wrote this week about the latest State of the Internet report from Akamai. She notes that we may not be a gigabit nation yet, but the latest data from Akamai shows that the number of broadband connections over 10 Mbps — what Akamai dubs “high broadband” -- has grown by 73 percent from the third quarter of 2011 to the third quarter of 2012. The country has also seen a 20 percent overall increase in average speed to 7.2 Mbps over the past year. But the number of people who have adopted broadband (measured at anything above 4 Mbps) is just 62 percent, which puts the U.S. at No. 12 in the worldwide rankings when it comes to adoption and No. 9 when it comes to average speeds.

Moreover, Higginbotham points out, the Akamai report shows how much difference there can be in broadband quality even within countries. It also illustrates the difference in speeds between wireline and mobile connection (only seven mobile carriers even provide Akamai’s 4 Mbps definition of broadband – and none of them are doing so in the U.S.). As our own country attempts to build out gigabit cities near universities – or at least one city in every state – it’s worth pointing out that the future is clearly here in terms of faster broadband, but it’s unevenly distributed among the types of broadband and within countries.

Crawford says that if the U.S. is to have reasonably priced, globally competitive, ubiquitous communications infrastructure so that Americans can compete and innovate, we need to pursue three goals:

  1. We must remove barriers to investment in local fiber networks. Nineteen states have enacted laws sponsored by incumbent network operators that raise barriers for cities wanting to foster competitive networks. Congress must act to restore local communities’ right to self-determination by pre-empting these unfair and anticompetitive state laws. We must also create infrastructure banks that provide long-term, low-interest financing to support the initial costs of building these networks.
  2. The Federal Communications Commission must make reasonably priced high-speed access available to everyone. We need to make sure that subsidies are available for competitive companies willing to extend world-class service to more Americans.
  3. The FCC must foster more competition by changing the rules that keep the status quo in place, rules incumbents use to restrict access to programming and to telephone poles.

[Readers may also be in this op-ed Crawford penned for Bloomberg this week: How to Give the U.S. Ultrafast Internet]

At the FCC on January 18, Chairman Julius Genachowski called for at least one gigabit community in all 50 states by 2015. Speeds of one gigabit per second are approximately 100 times faster than the average fixed high-speed Internet connection. At gigabit speeds, connections can handle multiple streams of large-format, high-definition content like online video calls, movies, and immersive educational experiences. Networks cease to be hurdles to applications, so it no longer matters whether medical data, high-definition video, or online services are in the same building or miles away across the state.

To help communities meet the Gigabit City Challenge, Chairman Genachowski announced plans to create a new online clearinghouse of best practices to collect and disseminate information about how to lower the costs and increase the speed of broadband deployment nationwide, including to create gigabit communities. Chairman Genachowski also announced that the FCC will hold workshops on gigabit communities. The workshops will convene leaders from the gigabit community ecosystem—including broadband providers, and state and municipal leaders— to evaluate barriers, increase incentives, and lower the costs of speeding gigabit network deployment.

Communities across the country are already taking action to seize the opportunities of gigabit broadband for their local economies and bring superfast broadband to homes. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, a local utility deployed a fiber network to 170,000 homes. Thanks to the city’s investment in broadband infrastructure, companies like Volkswagen and Amazon have created more than 3,700 new jobs over the past three years in Chattanooga. [See Benton’s “Broadband At the Speed of Light: How Three Communities Built Next-Generation Networks” for more] On January 23, Gov Pat Quinn (D-IL) was joined by leaders from the City of Evanston (IL) and Northwestern University to announce a $1 million state investment to help the city become an Illinois Gigabit Community, bringing ultra-high speed Internet to one of the nation’s top universities and the surrounding area, home to more than 160 start-ups.

The Gig.U initiative has already catalyzed $200 million in private investment to build ultra-high-speed hubs in the communities of many leading research universities, including a recent joint venture with the University of Washington and a private ISP to deliver gigabit service to a dozen area neighborhoods in Seattle. The Gigabit City Challenge is designed to drive a critical mass of gigabit communities like these, creating new markets for 21st century services, promoting competition, spurring innovation, and driving economic growth nationwide.

In Forbes, Chairman Genachowski wrote, “We need more of these gigabit testbeds to ensure there is a sufficient market in the U.S. for super-high-bandwidth applications and services. A critical mass of gigabit communities will spur innovation and investment.”

But Christopher Mitchell, Telecom Director at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, thinks Chairman Genachowski doesn’t understand what is preventing us from building those networks: “little incentive for massive, established cable monopolies to invest in networks when they are harvesting record profits and subscribers have no other choices.” He says the FCC needs to wrestle with the real problem: “far too much of our essential telecommunications infrastructure is controlled by de facto monopolies unaccountable to the communities that depend upon them.”

Circling back to the Inauguration, Mitchell’s assessment contrasts with President Obama’s reminder that “Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play.” As noted above, “No single person can train all the math and science teachers we’ll need to equip our children for the future, or build the roads and networks and research labs that will bring new jobs and businesses to our shores.” The President went on to say, “Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation and one people.”

At the Benton Foundation, through Headlines, we seek and report upon the policy solutions that support the values of access, diversity and equity, and demonstrate the value of media and telecommunications for improving the quality of life for all. The President’s words on January 21 ring in our ears and we look forward to the work needed to make them reality in the coming years.

By Kevin Taglang.