Broadband Needs Political Leadership

There was no mention of the word “broadband” in the President’s State of the Union address last week, an omission of little surprise given everything else that’s going on. Still, it may have been tacit acknowledgment that yet another Bush administration campaign goaluniversal broadband access by 2007 — will fall by the wayside.

Granted, the President and the nation should focus first on pressing matters like wars and health care. But that doesn’t mean it’s OK for U.S. politicians to ignore this country’s broadband infrastructure. In fact, without political leadership and national-goal objectives, the current dismal state of American broadband penetration isn’t going to get better soon. The combination of archaic regulations, big monopoly service providers and the perform-now mentality of Wall Street simply won’t allow for any risky experimentation or network buildout that doesn’t have fast, demonstrable ROI. So we need politicians to take charge.

Already, you see such leadership happening on a local level, with municipalities and even some states drafting their own broadband plans, usually revolving around wireless (because wireless technologies offer the attractive if unproven idea of circumnavigating the telco infrastructure to deploy faster technologies more quickly). Maybe starting locally is the best way to go, since experiments can happen faster and more methods can be tested. Given the current President’s preoccupation with weighter matters like Iraq, and the current apparent unwillingness in Congress to take on big-picture telecom reform in 2007, local experiments may be all we have for the near-term future.

Leaving broadband build outs to the big telcos and cablecos — an idea that probably passes as strategy for the current administration — isn’t going to get us to ubiquitous broadband anytime soon. Both Verizon and AT&T are struggling to bring their networks up to speed, and are likely to focus on providing services to high-paying customers first to satisfy Wall Street.

As long as there aren’t too many more Katrina situtations to expose the underlying fragility of their networks, the telcos and their armies of lobbyists and lawyers should be able to stand their ground under the current byzantine structure of telecom laws, moving forward on a timetable that benefits their shareholders first. That’s as it should be for any public company worth its market cap. But is it good policy for all?

In the meantime what’s not happening is anyone building new networks on a national basis for the greater good. Rich folks with disposable incomes should have no problems. The worry should be about the classrooms and homes of mainstream America, and whether or not broadband will allow everyone a chance to participate or prepare for the digital economy of the future.

We are headed for problems as a nation if the best thinking that comes out of Davos is that YouTube is going to pay for videos, or that Bill Gates thinks the Internet will give us better TV. Now that politicians are finding the Internet as a communications vehicle, they should focus a bit on the medium as well as the message. Because it needs their help.

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