November 10, 2009

100 Day Countdown to National Broadband Policy Looms

100 day countdown for new national broadband policy framework – what’s it mean to Cleveland and AnyTown, USA?

The sand is slipping through the hour glass and today the magic counter on http://www.broadband.gov/ slipped to 99 days. On February 17th, 2010 Julius Genachowski and Blair Levin of the FCC will send up to Congress what may well be the single most important infrastructure policy framework since the 1956 legislation on building the nation’s interstate highway under the President Eisenhower. Funny thing, unless you happen to be an ‘insider’ you’re not likely to even know that the FCC is working on this massive and potentially transformational infrastructure policy. Even more important, the FCC and broadband evangelists are having a hard time getting air time (ironically) to explain “so-what”. Let me try to outline why folks in Cleveland and AnyTown, USA should care and engage.

The preview of the conclusion is simple. The hopes of Clevelanders for a vibrant future for themselves, their children, neighbors, and friends are intimately and inextricably linked to the systemic transformation of our traditional economy. That journey involves new collaborative leadership, thoughtful and consensus-based investments in our regional leading-edge advantages, and a blueprint for a globally competitive 21st century infrastructure. A huge part of that 21st century infrastructure is ultra broadband. The truth is, most anyone anywhere can substitute Cleveland for their home town and the story about tomorrow has a similar calculus. For reasons that folks living in the rustbelt know better than others, the inability to shift core industry and infrastructure comes at a high price. Communities and their leaders all around the country should educate themselves about broadband and practice civic engagement. Five years from now, it will simply be too late. We’ve seen this movie before and it doesn’t have a fairytale ending.

Back in 1956, under the President’s call for a national interstate and defense highway system, some $25billion for construction of 41,000 miles of highway was appropriated over 20 years. Today, the stakes and the need for leadership for public investments in core national infrastructure are as important as was the bold action to shape policy to build our nation’s 20th century transportation infrastructure. The ‘hook’ is no longer the Cold War and defense and the need to be agile in our response to an invasion of our boundaries by a hostile foreign army. We are in a globally competitive environment for attracting business, developing and retaining talent, and developing leading edge economic engines for the 21st century. As is appropriate, there is plenty of concern and significant energy and brainpower being deployed to respond to what most everyone now understands as a great leveling of the economic, education, and innovation around the globe over the past 20 years. Indeed, many of our legacy industries that defined our greatness in another era are now part of our risk portfolio moving forward. No one knows that better than the communities like Cleveland in the rustbelt of America. The next 99 days may be the most important precursors to whether the United States will remain globally competitive over the next 99 years. Hyperbole aside, there is, in my view, not another public policy agenda as important as what the FCC and the other agencies in the federal government are positioned to do over broadband infrastructure.

All around the world, the stature of cities and knowledge regions are being defined by a dynamic and messy combination of research, talent, culture, entrepreneurship, amenities, services, and public policy. In Australia, the national government just announced a $43 billion (Australian) dollar national broadband policy as a “major piece of infrastructure contributing to economic growth and prosperity (Sydney Morning Herald Nov 6, 2009). As Chiehyu Lili and James Losey from the New America Foundation point out (http://www.newamerica.net/files/100%20Megabits%20or%20Bust.pdf) the story is the same in cities and countries around the world. The single most important new public investment portfolio is ultra broadband. The framework being developed by the FCC is a high stakes undertaking. Many otherwise intelligent consumers of broadband services in Cleveland and around the country live with the twin fallacy of continuing American primary in the global digital economy (after all, we invented the Internet) and that somehow, public investment in broadband is un-American, or something like that. Anyone who has travelled to Japan, Korea, Taiwan, northern Europe, indeed most any OECD country and spoken with friends and/or colleagues knows that ultra broadband connectivity (on the order of 100 to 1000 times more broadband than we currently typically experience) is now the DNA of their everyday experiences. Health services, education and training, energy and traffic management, public safety and yes, their generic data, voice, and video services are all enabled over what are generally (all though not exclusively), public investment or co-investment in this next generation infrastructure. The single most comprehensive survey of the international environment comes from the Berkman Center at Harvard (http://www.fcc.gov/stage/pdf/Berkman_Center_Broadband_Study_13Oct09.pdf). More importantly, take a look at Yochai Benkler’s response to the feedback on the original submission (http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/node/5751).

Clevelanders and every other American are exceptional only in only one sense and that is that we do not have a national broadband policy. Indeed, our policy until this FCC led by Julius Genachowski is that we did not need a policy. Beyond bravado and obfuscation the simple reason we are not globally competitive and we pay more for less is that there are very powerful and extremely well-funded companies whose narrow interests are best served when we have no public policy. One last word before trying to attend to the ‘what difference will this make’ to Clevelanders. The naked truth in the broadband debate is obvious to everyone. No one (and here I mean to include the hundreds of lobbyists being paid millions of dollars in total) has any illusions as to what the stakes are in this policy arena. Decision makers at the highest levels of Government are inundated with what they and everyone around them know is poppycock and b-movie scripts about why we do not need to make a change in our no broadband policy policy.

The broadband debate in Washington has remained, by and large, a policy wonk and ‘inside the beltway’ conversation. Too bad. I mean, really too bad. It’s not like the healthcare debate, where most folks have an opinion and care about the outcome. The broadband debate could be all about a focused set of new models to help deliver more cost effective, preventive wellness education and health care. It’s not like the debate over safety in our neighborhoods where we try and care about the outcome of community policing, parks, and lighting. The broadband debate could be all about our common interest in safer neighborhoods and more efficient and collaborative public safety responses to incidents made possible by broadband. It’s not like the debate on ‘no child left behind’ and our continuing concern and hope that we can close the so-called ‘achievement gap’ so that our children might have a future as good as, if not better than our own. The broadband debate could be all about extending structured and informal learning, at home, in the community library, between generations, through pathways of self discovery and exploration of the global village enabled by the Internet. When the price of gas at the pump goes up above $4.00 a gallon we certainly care about our energy policy. Home heating fuel prices are a major concern for folks in the Midwest and Northeast. Many folks know whether it’s an ‘inconvenient truth”, or not, that there is a global and local awareness about Carbon emissions and the need to develop a forward looking policy on energy conservation. The broadband policy could be informed in significant measure on new alternative energy strategies and their relationship to economic development. Or incentives for alternative energy consumption tied to broadband adoption and new models of working.

Broadband is the enabler of opportunity in the 21st century. Breakthrough discoveries in our universities based on new models of global collaboration are enabled over ultra broadband that connect researchers and their labs around the globe. Remote surgeries, health-related consultations, and daily interactive wellness programs are made possible by the roll out of next generation internet connectivity. Education disadvantage for underserved urban and rural America are reduced as ubiquitous internet connectivity becomes an attainable set of expectations that they, along with middle class suburbanites can enjoy. Public and neighborhood safety should be every American’s entitlement and made possible by smart public policy investment in public broadband infrastructure.

Public investment in infrastructure makes sense under three basic
conditions;(1) new market creation and incubation of new markets , (2) evidence of market failures (where profits are not attainable), and (3) when such investments serve the broad public interest and are related to other public policy goals. Incumbent market players as well as new private sector entrants into the marketplace have an enormously important role to play in helping all of us, young and old, inner city residents or rural community families, healthy and frail, to understand and create value in using this powerful and potentially transformational infrastructure. In the 1956 debate over the build out inter-state highway system the public investment was made in the name of national public policy. An enormous and robust private sector set of services grew up to take advantage and provide much value on that public investment. Clevelanders and residents of Northeast Ohio understand how important our transportation and transportation logistics industry is to our region and to the nation. The same is true on the long over-due public investment in a national broadband policy. Over the next twenty years, every American should have an ultra broadband enabled home, neighborhood, city to call their own. The future of the quality of life in our communities and in our country’s global competitiveness rests on getting this broadband policy right.

In my next blog entry I will outline an exciting set of new initiatives underway among more than 40 public sector anchor institutions in NEOhio to deliver a working model and set of pilot projects to support ultra broadband infrastructure to the front door of our inner-city neighborhoods.

Lev Gonick
Case Western Reserve University
November 10, 2009

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