WASHINGTON--Rather than investing emergency funds into old economic sectors like the auto industry, the federal government should look to the future and invest in a national broadband strategy, panelists at a broadband symposium said Wednesday.
"Let Detroit go bust, let the banks go bust--put $700 billion into broadband," said Paul Dickson, CEO of the Carbon Disclosure Project. "Broadband is the future."
The U.S. economy will surely come to a halt if the country cannot keep up with the pace of modern technology, said panelists at the event, which was hosted by the Internet Innovation Alliance.
More access and broader utilization of broadband can improve the country's future economic outlook, they said, but it can also help Americans struggling to keep up in the current economy. As resources become scarcer in tight economic times, far more government programs will be easier to reach via the Internet.
"For someone trying to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, that whole process has changed," said Paul Cosgrave, commissioner of the New York City department of information technology and telecommunications. "They have to pull themselves up by the mouse cord, not necessarily their bootstraps."
It is up to President-elect Barack Obama and his administration to set the tone for broadband legislation and regulation, said David McClure, president of the United States Internet Industry Association. Yet while the goals for broadband accessibility should be far reaching, the investments to get there should be targeted at areas that need it, he said.
The panelists agreed there should be more investment in broadband deployment but acknowledged the realities of today's economic and political climate.
"There are a lot of pressures from the old economy that are going to come into the mix" as Congress works on creating a new stimulus package, either in its current lame-duck session or at the start of next year, said Elaine Kamarck, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School.
She urged those at the symposium to "work hard to make sure this stimulus package is a 21st century stimulus package."
Dickson said levying taxes on air fuel would be better for the economy than taxes on information and communication technology.
"The one hope for our world is being strangled," he said.
The quality of American life is clearly hampered by limited broadband access, panelists said, when a soldier can more easily search for medical information from his camp in Iraq than his home in Alabama.
Similarly, the country's potential to grow is obviously constrained when a college student is limited in which classes she can take because she does not have broadband access.
The integration of technology into the American education system pales in comparison to what has been accomplished in other countries, said Susan Patrick, president of the North American Council for Online Learning.
China has already digitized its entire kindergarten through twelfth grade curriculum, she said, and will reach 100 million more students online after WiMax becomes available.
The changes in online learning will "fundamentally shift what we call a world class education," she said.
Utilizing broadband technology in education will bolster our future workforce, but implementing it into human services programs can help the country's current workers, panelists pointed out.
New York City has seen a major increase in applicants for human services because of its Access NYC site, from which residents can determine if they are eligible for any of 35 services. The site is accessible in seven different languages.
Putting services online is "critically important when we will probably have more people applying for benefits than ever before," said Kamarck. "We have tighter budgets, and therefore any kinds of efficiencies will obviously help us keep more benefits for the people who need them."