Making Broadband Dollars Count: Maximizing Our Return on the Feds’ High-Speed Internet Investments
Not long ago the biggest public policy challenge for universal broadband was inaction. America had no national strategy for guiding policy makers’ efforts and informing private actors. We had never invested in national broadband mapping to understand where high-speed Internet was offered and where it was lacking. We had no concerted policies to bring broadband to unserved areas or people who could not afford it. There was little coordination among government agencies focused on connecting health centers, educational institutions or affordable housing, and uncertainty about government’s plans and commitment.[IMGCAP(1)]Things have certainly changed. No longer suffering from inattention, the biggest broadband challenge today may be avoiding errors of commission, ensuring we take the right actions. Much needs to be done by the private sector and by government, and the Federal Communications Commission is to be commended for leading this important effort. Approached sensibly, the unprecedented public investments in broadband offered by the recovery legislation will greatly complement the $60 billion to $80 billion invested annually by the private sector and meaningfully advance America’s broadband status.An effective national broadband strategy will enable the government to partner with the private sector to extend broadband service to every corner of the country, while at the same time raising awareness of its benefits. A national broadband strategy should also evolve as technologies improve and as we learn more from broadband mapping and from the return on initial stimulus investments. The best strategy will start by examining where we stand today and then identify policies to get us where we want to be.First, focus on what we know while we learn what we need to know. We know roughly 10 million households lack any broadband options at all and connecting them requires billions of dollars. By contrast, policy makers need more research to better understand why Americans who could subscribe choose not to. The national broadband strategy should not rush decisions that will benefit from the broadband mapping currently under way, and the FCC should seek greater qualitative information on why many Americans are choosing not to subscribe to broadband where it is available.Second, tap local knowledge. While federal leadership is welcome and long overdue, states and localities have much to offer to the discussion. Those from Washington, D.C., who are here to help should work closely with mayors, governors and community leaders, seeking every opportunity to empower those on the ground who are closest to challenges and most creative in customizing answers.Third, enable entrepreneurs and plan for major innovations. The one thing we know about the broadband marketplace is that it will continue to change rapidly. This has been a very good thing for consumers and innovators. Federal investments in broadband should never lock communities or the market into specific technologies or standards. While government planners should reflect previous experience, such as the benefits of connecting libraries and community technology centers, they should also enable game-changing technologies to transform the landscape.Finally, implement sustainable solutions. We must take care to avoid new entitlement programs, connecting communities and individuals with broadband offerings that they can never afford to maintain. Government investments that lack sustainable funding are not sound investments in our future. Similarly, federal regulations to direct one-time grants should complement, not imperil, the $60 billion to $80 billion annually invested by private actors in the telecommunications marketplace. When the federal dollars are gone, private investment will be more essential.We are fortunate to have an administration seeking a coherent set of policies and goals that complement and accelerate the efforts in the marketplace to achieve universal adoption of high-speed Internet. The new team of telecommunications leaders nominated to run the FCC, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and the Rural Utility Service are seasoned, thoughtful and capable of attacking our most challenging broadband issues, once they are in place.Working together, public and private leaders can restore U.S. primacy in Internet technologies and ensure the benefits of true broadband reach all Americans in less than 10 years.Bruce Mehlman and Larry Irving are of co-chairmen the Internet Innovation Alliance. Mehlman served as assistant secretary of Commerce for technology policy in the Bush administration, and Irving served as assistant secretary of Commerce for communications and information in the Clinton administration.