Why Broadband Matters

Charles Benton

The Senate Commerce Committee meets September 16 to hear testimony on the consumer benefits of broadband service. The question of the day is ? I could offer a long list of reasons why broadband matters, but the list of reasons is too long to enumerate here because it is over 305 million names long.

Luckily, the Senate's hearing focuses on people rather than pipes.

Broadband matters for every American. Broadband matters...

For families. Broadband is changing the way families learn, communicate, play and prepare for their future. Critically important information about health care, scholarships, colleges, jobs, and community life such as driver's licenses or registering to vote is increasingly on the Internet, and sometimes only on the Internet.

For consumers. The Internet is already transforming the way we live, work, and play. 31 billion emails are now sent each day. More than 12.4 million Americans telecommute full-time, and already more than 14 million Americans have placed a telephone call over the Internet. But the best is yet ahead.

For Rural Americans. Nowhere is broadband opportunity as profound as it is in rural America. In too many rural communities, because jobs have migrated to urban areas, high school graduates often feel they have only two choices - go away, or go nowhere. Broadband is the connection to new markets, new jobs, and to distant family and friends.

For people with disabilities. Broadband is an especially promising technology for the 54 million Americans with disabilities -- able to provide breakthrough new benefits not possible in today's legacy phone network. As all Americans increasingly depend on e-mail and the Internet to work and communicate, it becomes even more important to ensure that people with disabilities are not left out of the digital revolution.

For seniors. Policies designed to accelerate the use of broadband could save seniors more than $800 billion by reducing health care costs. These benefits are as substantial as what the federal government is likely to spend on homeland security over the next 25 years, and under the right set of policies, could exceed what the United States currently spends annually for health care for all its citizens.

For the economy. Ubiquitously available broadband could unleash:

  • an estimated $500 billion in economic growth
  • create more than 1.2 million high-wage jobs
  • restore America's global competitiveness
  • boost business productivity -- which is essential to raising standards of living for all families in America
  • allow small businesses to reach global markets

For Homeland Security. In a study of the communications failures on September 11, 2001, the National Academies of Science found that the Internet held up better than other communications technologies on that fateful day. On 9/11, 95% of cell phone calls at 11 a.m. failed to get through, the central office for the phone system cut off 300,000 landline phones, television stations were knocked off the air, and police and Fire Department radios failed. In contrast, only 2% of Internet addresses remained off-line for an extended period. 9/11 demonstrated the Internet's overall resilience to attacks thru its flexibility, and adaptability. But 7 years after 9/11, America has not done enough to advance the broadband Internet technologies that can help avoid future communications failures.

For Public Safety. Katrina, another catastrophic communications failure, highlighted once again how fragile and woefully outdated the emergency communications system in this country has become. During Katrina, 38 Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPS) failed preventing 911 calls from being answered -- which public safety leaders say could have been avoided if they had switched to IP based voice and data communication. Connecting public safety answering points to broadband, like we've connected schools and libraries, is the new post-Katrina communications imperative.

For Government. Universal broadband could also have important advantages for the government itself, allowing government workers to communicate in more geographically-dispersed locations in an emergency. In the event of a major 9/11-type attack on Washington, offices could be inaccessible but employees will still need to communicate. Federal workers using broadband enabled phones could immediately work from home or other broadband enabled location -- improving continuity of government. Many government agencies are already making the switch to broadband enabled voice services, but without broadband at home, workers can't connect.

Luckily, the Senate's hearing focuses on people rather than pipes. Because even as we come to recognize that broadband networks are the essential communications medium of the 21st century, those who could benefit the most from this economically empowering technology are also those most likely to be left without access because of where they live or how much money they make.

Now is the time for government leadership -- for making broadband as universal as telephone service is today and bringing its benefits to all Americans as soon as possible.

The Senate hearing will undoubtedly reach this answer: universal, affordable broadband access is as important to the advancement of the American ideal of equal opportunity in the 21st century as universal access to education and universal phone service was in the last. As broadband becomes more critical for everything from jobs, to education and even participation in modern campaigns - millions do not have access to affordable high-speed broadband - or any broadband choices at all. We have made great progress in extending broadband's reach, but, unfortunately, America faces a lingering broadband gap that is unlikely to be bridged by market forces alone. Now is the time for government leadership -- for making broadband as universal as telephone service is today and bringing its benefits to all Americans as soon as possible.

Additional Resources from the Benton Foundation:

The Future of Universal Service is Broadband

Building Broadband Into Universal Service

Universal Affordable Broadband for All Americans

Broadband Benefits

By Charles Benton.