Sputnik 2: Time for Broadband

By Charles Benton

Earlier this month, President Barack Obama said our generation’s Sputnik moment is upon us. President Obama likened our recent economic setbacks to a key moment in October 1957 when Americans saw our scientific leadership in the world fall from first to second as a small beeping sphere sped through the night sky. I strongly agree. And I see broadband as a key element in our response to Sputnik 2.

After the first Sputnik launch, Americans did what we do best. We rallied the nation’s resources around a comprehensive strategy to regain our technological leadership. As president Obama said, “Once we put our minds to it, once we got focused, once we got unified, not only did we surpass the Soviets, we developed new American technologies, industries, and jobs.”

So the question before us today: How will we respond positively to our new Sputnik moment, which is largely of our own creation?

The President has called for rebuilding on a new and stronger foundation for economic growth. “We need to do what America has always been known for: building, innovating, educating, making things,” The President said. “ We don’t want to be a nation that simply buys and consumes products from other countries. We want to create and sell products all over the world that are stamped with three simple words: ‘Made In America.’ That's our goal.”

The President touted investment in infrastructure as a key element for our reaching our goal. Economic competition, he said, “is going to be much more fierce and the winners of this competition will be the countries that have the most educated workers, a serious commitment to research and technology, and access to quality infrastructure like roads and airports and high-speed rail and high-speed Internet.”

In October 2007, to commemorate the 1957 Sputnik moment, I wrote an op-ed published in The Hill that hit on many of the President’s themes. I said we must 1) devise a comprehensive, national, digital strategy, 2) create 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) extend broadband’s reach to those who can benefit most.

Looking back over the past two years, I am amazed at the progress this Administration has made at reaching these goals. It is safe to say that on broadband, President Barack Obama has done more in two years than President George W. Bush did in two terms.

  • In February 2009 through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) over 7 billion dollars was invested in strengthening our nation’s broadband infrastructure.
  • In March 2010, the Federal Communications Commission completed a year-long, Herculean task to devise America’s National Broadband Plan.
  • On June 28, 2010, President Obama signed a presidential memorandum aiming to 1) make available for auction some 500 megahertz of spectrum that is now controlled by the federal government and private companies, 2) Provide new tools and new incentives to free up spectrum, 3) Redeploy the spectrum to high-value uses, and 4) Use spectrum auction proceeds to promote public safety and job-creating infrastructure investment.
  • In September 2010, the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service made their final announcements on the $7 billion in funding to drive broadband deployment into unserved and underserved areas – and to improve effective use of broadband everywhere in the country.

But as critical and laudable as these efforts have been, we can’t stop there.

First, we need to evaluate the progress ARRA grantees make in bringing broadband service to the underserved and helping them make the most of it. These projects could be models for connecting other communities – and could offer insight on what government’s role should be in broadband deployment. Although that spending was temporary, it provided the biggest federal investment in high-speed Internet deployment ever. ASR Analytics has been picked to evaluate NTIA-funded projects and help Americans understand the economic and social impact of these federal and state investments. We should ensure that the evaluation focuses not only on the quality of infrastructure development, but also tracks the adoption of broadband. Evaluation can help us understand which applications communities gravitate towards first, why other applications might not be used as much, and what support services truly aid with the adoption of broadband.

At the Benton Foundation, we’re tracking the progress of the Administration, Congress and the FCC on their implementation of the National Broadband Plan. The heart of the plan, as many see it, is modernization of the 8 billion dollar plus Federal Universal Service Fund (USF), which is more annually than all of ARRA’s broadband funding. Universal telephone service has been a national objective since the Communications Act of 1934, in which Congress stated its intention to "make available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States … a rapid, efficient, Nation-wide, and world-wide wire and radio communication service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges."

The current federal universal service programs were created in the aftermath of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 -- at a time when only 23% of Americans had dial-up Internet access at home, and virtually no one had broadband. While the federal USF and earlier programs have played a critical role in the universalization of voice service in the last century, the current USF was not designed to support broadband directly, other than for schools, libraries and rural health care providers.

In 2010, the federal USF is projected to make total outlays of $8.7 billion through the four programs identified below. Our agenda – in 2011 and 2012 – must be to shift from supporting legacy telephone networks to directly supporting high-capacity broadband networks.

  1. The High-Cost program is spending $4.6 billion in 2010 to subsidize telecommunications services in areas where costs would otherwise be prohibitively high. Early in 2011, the FCC should make proposals to transform this program so it can help accelerate the pace of broadband infrastructure investment in rural and other underserved areas.
  2. The E-rate program is spending $2.7 billion to support voice and broadband connectivity for schools and libraries. In May 2010, the FCC adopted new rules that will improve big pipe broadband access for schools and libraries and allow community access to these services. The FCC is also investigating wireless off-premises connectivity services.
  3. The Low Income program is spending $1.2 billion this year to subsidize the cost of telephone service for low-income people. In November 2010, a federal and state joint task force recommended that universal service support should be directed where possible to networks that provide both voice and advanced services, like broadband. In 2011, the FCC should move quickly to modernize these programs so that they make broadband services more affordable for low-income people. Instead of supporting 19th century technology, the USF should be helping our most vulnerable to adopt the most essential information and communications tools of the 21st century.
  4. The Rural Health Care program, which supports connectivity for health care providers, will spend $214 million in 2010 and twice that amount within the next year or so. In July, the FCC introduced a new health care connectivity program that would expand investment in broadband for medically underserved communities across the country. The program would give patients in rural areas access to state-of-the-art diagnostic tools typically available only in the largest and most sophisticated medical centers. The FCC should move swiftly to adopt the rules needed to launch this new program.

Concluding on a personal note, last August I was elected Chairman of the Partnership for a Connected Illinois (PCI). We are one of 56 state and territory organizations that are charged by our respective states with the implementation of the NTIA’s State Broadband Data and Development program. Illinois received almost a quarter of a billion dollars of broadband stimulus funding from ARRA, second only to the state of California. This was matched by over 100 million dollars of state and private funding. We have a leader, Governor Pat Quinn, who believes deeply in the powers of broadband for economic and community development. We also have outstanding staff and governmental, non-profit and private sector leadership in place throughout the state. Perhaps with all of these resources, Illinois can become a state model for the deployment of broadband to all its residents toward the long term national goal of universal broadband.

Our moment is now to revitalize the foundation of our economy and to regain our global competitive edge.

By Charles Benton.