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Access to Telecom Tools Is Critical for Our Future

A universal high-speed broadband communications infrastructure is an absolute imperative for America’s future. Ubiquitous broadband deployment, in cities, suburbs and rural areas will provide the type of 21st century network necessary for America’s continued economic dynamism, job creation, education and public safety. Broadband should offer Americans the freedom to use any application and any device to access whatever legal content they wish,

but the network and its freedoms should be extended to all Americans. Now is the time for adoption of a comprehensive national broadband policy. Among other items, our top three priorities should be to provide incentives for rural and “ex-urban” broadband expansion, hasten the digital television transition, and invest in targeted federal funding for communications research.

Regrettably, the International Telecommunication Union recently released statistics that show U.S. global broadband penetration dropped last year from 13th place to 16th — only 11 out of 100 Americans subscribe to broadband. South Korea is the global leader, with nearly a 25 percent broadband subscription rate. America currently has a nascent infrastructure for broadband, but a truly vigorous nation-wide deployment will require a reconsideration of current policies, government incentives and investment to usher in the new digital era.

On the digital television transition debate, our primary goal should be to find the quickest and most efficient way to free up analog spectrum. The benefits of the DTV transition are threefold: providing wireless, broadband and other new services for Americans; securing vital communications for our first responders; and bringing higher-quality television for consumers. We should have a healthy debate about the best way to accomplish this, because it is a laudable goal to which we should commit ourselves. We can achieve an earlier transition date only if we craft a robust set-top box reimbursement program, sufficiently funded to give every over-the-air television continued access to the airwaves. Consumers will need these set-top boxes to receive digital signals and continue using their analog televisions for which they have invested an expectation of ongoing value.

Unfortunately, the majority party’s current proposal contains no reimbursement and does not help consumers or all interested stakeholders. Turning off the analog signal and selling that spectrum without adequately compensating those who lose it would be indefensible if those funds are used in the budget reconciliation to pay for tax cuts. The analog spectrum will generate billions of dollars, and we should use that money to make the transition as smooth as possible, because citizens who want to buy a new instrument should have first claim on the funds generated by the upcoming auction of the spectrum. We cannot do this on the cheap. Shortchanging consumers’ investments will result in both the failure of policy and a revolt among consumers that will make the Whisky Rebellion pale in comparison.

Expanding broadband to underserved areas will also require a significant government infrastructure investment. One reason South Korea excels in broadband is the country’s population density, with roughly half the population in Seoul itself.

Extending broadband networks to rural America, where some of its benefits are needed most, can be a more difficult challenge. When it comes to rural broadband, Congress may consider a host of options, from making universal service funds available for wireless broadband to allowing municipal involvement on a last-resort, competitively neutral basis. We should make the decision that, in the 21st century economy, broadband is a service that should be universally available, much like we decided early in the last century that telephone service was a modern necessity.

Expanding universal service to cover broadband should only be carried out in a sustainable fashion, and reform of the program needs to ensure adequate funding and fair distribution.

Our third broadband opportunity is federal support of communications research. When the government provides incentives for telecommunications research, consumers see the effects with better service and lower prices. The Bush administration’s 2006 budget request shorted key areas of technology research and development funding, according to a new analysis released recently by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. For example, the Pentagon science and technology budget dropped 21 percent. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is taking more of its computer science research out of long term work for short term gains. The National Science Foundation’s IT research budget is also running into constraints and the administration’s overall research and development budget is flat. Moreover, the highly successful Advanced Technology Program is being eliminated. We should be going in the opposite direction by increasing research funding and exploring incentives for broadband deployment, including tax credits and low-interest loans. A starting point should be re-energizing the ATP program with a new emphasis on communications technologies.

Despite enormous regulatory uncertainty, Wall Street is investing in this effort. For instance, Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg is taking risks and committing billions to build out a lightening fast fiber-to-the-home broadband network capable of speeds 30 times faster than current DSL services. While Verizon and many other broadband providers face a host of regulatory hurdles, they are nonetheless investing in America’s broadband infrastructure.

But private enterprise cannot bridge the gap alone. They will need a partner in the federal government to foster innovation, clear hurdles, and go the whole distance. Exploring the three proposals outlined above will be an important step in providing universal high-speed broadband to Americans.

Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) is a member of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet.

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