Putting the Public Interest Back Into Communications Part II: Broadband for Everyone, Everywhere

Putting the Public Interest Back Into Communications Part II:
Broadband for Everyone, Everywhere

Charles Benton

An invitation to speak at the annual conference of the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors, has me thinking about defining our communications goals for the next Administration.

T.S. Eliot wrote:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in the past

In 1967, the Carnegie Commission described something called public broadcasting intended to be a space "where people of the community express their hopes, their protests, their enthusiasms and their will."

America faces a growing broadband gap that is unlikely to be bridged by market forces alone.

Although we were successful in creating a public broadcasting system that reached everyone, we've been less successful in creating a non-commercial broadcasting - and cable - environment in which viewers are empowered to be vital content creators as well.

Ten years ago, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers began its mission to help manage the Internet. Since at least the late-90s, we've recognized that our communications future is the Internet. Today, more clearly, we see that high-speed Internet, broadband, is, undoubtedly, the essential communications medium of the 21st century.

With broadband, we can access e-mail, connect with friends, start a business, get news, watch a video, and even make a phone call. But, more importantly, broadband is now becoming increasingly essential for achieving fundamental, national policy goals - from improving education, extending health care, creating jobs and boosting our economy, conserving energy and the environment, improving public safety and national security, and reconnecting Americans with their democracy.

But America faces a growing broadband gap that is unlikely to be bridged by market forces alone.

To harness broadband's power and potential, what's needed is a new commitment to making this critical medium as universal as telephones are today. What's needed is a fundamental shift in the federal, universal service policy from supporting analog, narrowband, telephone communications to supporting digital broadband communications.

Modernizing the Universal Service Fund for broadband isn't only about patching holes in a safety net program. It's time to move beyond thinking about universal service as merely a safety net and begin thinking of it more as a trampoline that can catapult us into a new world of opportunity. A broadband-driven global economy demands a system of supports that not only catch people when they fall, but can help propel all of us into the new jobs, careers, and opportunities that a digital future makes possible.

But let's not just rely on universal service reform. What's needed, I believe, is a national broadband strategy to guide us from where we are today to our fully-realized, digital communications future.

In 2004, President Bush proclaimed as a goal for his administration affordable broadband in every American household by the year 2007. It didn't happen.

Meanwhile, in a globally-competitive and interconnected world, America's competitors are implementing well-conceived and financed national strategies to dramatically increase their competitive advantage in broadband over the United States.

As the Benton Foundation argues in a new paper we're writing, unless our nation quickly answers this serious challenge, America will continue to export economic growth and good-paying "knowledge worker" jobs overseas to its better-connected, lower-wage competitors. Our citizens will continue to be denied the benefits of broadband already being enjoyed by citizens of other nations in health care, education, public safety and security, energy conservation and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and more.

This challenge is so serious that we urge the next president to issue Executive Orders on Day One of his administration that will place our nation on a clear path to successfully executing our own National Broadband Strategy and restoring our global telecommunications leadership. To be successful, our strategy must not only increase the supply of broadband, but also stimulate citizens' demand for broadband through initiatives that encourage the widespread adoption of proven broadband applications such as telehealth, online learning, telecommuting, and many more.

Our national broadband strategy should include tangible goals like speed of service we want to see delivered to every home and business. It should include improving data collection and mapping to identify broadband gaps, financial incentives for broadband deployment, empowering municipalities to build their own networks, and guarantees that broadband networks operate on a non-discriminatory basis in accord with the principles of Network Neutrality.

Our communications present and our communications past are both essential parts of our communications future. Our migration to digital communications does not mean we leave behind our historical commitments to ubiquitous and affordable access to communications tools. Today, we finally have a chance to fulfill the mandate of the Carnegie Commission. It is an opportunity we dare not let pass by.

By Charles Benton.