Main Street Over Megabits

The Federal Communications Commission has been working 24/7 to craft a national broadband plan that it will present to Congress by mid-March.

This plan is mandated by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and is the first U.S. effort to develop a comprehensive approach for Americans to obtain “universal broadband access,” as President Barack Obama termed it when he traveled the campaign trail prior to his election.

Although the FCC already has conducted 31 separate proceedings seeking public input from a wide range of individuals and organizations, it remains unclear whether the national broadband plan will deliver on the promise of being a 21st century version of the historic 1950s plan our nation developed successfully for the interstate highway system.

Unfortunately, too much focus so far has been on increasing the speed of broadband in the U.S. so that our rankings in the world on this measure move closer to the top. Currently, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the United States is 18th out of 30 developed countries in broadband speed. Our average download rate, based on an analysis by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, is a mere 4.8 megabits per second, paling in comparison to countries such as France (18 megabits per second) and Japan (61 megabits per second).

Picking up on this, Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), chairman of the House Communications, Technology and Internet Subcommittee, already has indicated that within the next five years, 80 percent of Americans should have access to broadband speeds that are more than ten times what we have today.

According to the FCC, implementing this could cost as much as $50 billion. Even the FCC’s own more modest plan — enabling everyone to have access to broadband at a slower 3 mpbs download speed — would carry with it an estimated $20 billion price tag.

For the average business and consumer, however, this focus on how fast broadband systems are in other countries seems to be a classic case of seeing the trees before discovering the forest. In order for the national broadband plan to capture the public’s attention and interest, along with garnering necessary bipartisan support in Washington, D.C., we need to abandon a “race to the moon” mind-set for broadband immediately.

The next two months will be critical for bringing the conversation about the national broadband plan back to Main Street and into our homes. With overall unemployment continuing to hover around 10 percent, the best connection that the FCC and other government policymakers can make is with broadband’s relationship to new private-sector investment, job creation, entrepreneurial activity and economic growth.

Congress clearly specified in the stimulus law that broadband’s importance to our nation’s recovery was an important means to these ends, not an end in itself. As the finishing touches of the national broadband plan are completed, the discussion needs to be less about international comparisons on speed of service and more about broadband’s relationship to critical domestic concerns.

If this refocusing is not done soon, we may find that the expansive conversation about broadband availability, access and impact that is needed does not take place. Broadband needs to be more than a side conversation in our country’s vital agenda.

But this can be accomplished only if technological capabilities and performance are linked with how they actually improve the ways we work and live.

Stuart N. Brotman is a visiting distinguished professor of emerging media at Ball State University and senior fellow at its Digital Policy Institute.