Leading to the gigabit promised land?

commentary If the United States wants to be a leader in the 21st century information economy, we need to stop debating the past and start figuring out the future.

Editor's note: This is a guest post by Blair Levin, whose bio is below. CNET invited him to write about the debate behind broadband infrastructure in the United States.

Last summer, Israel announced a plan to deploy a world-leading, gigabit broadband network nationwide. Cisco CEO John Chambers, in announcing his company's investment in the project, predicted Israel will lead the world in the process of "country transformation" that digital technology can deliver.

Huh? The United States invented the lion's share of that technology. Why isn't Chambers talking about the United States? That the CEO of one of our top tech companies thinks our country won't provide this kind of leadership suggests a troubling gap in how we perceive the path ahead in global technological leadership.

What happened? Our upgrade agenda got downgraded. Chambers noted that "world-class countries and companies don't lose focus," and unfortunately, we have. Our broadband pundits endlessly debate where we are instead of where we need to be, quarreling over interpretations of today's international broadband rankings or, in the case of the House Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, urgently holding a hearing on a program that the chairman of the FCC already shut down. These discussions are about headlines, not about progress. By design, they only look backward, implicating the policies of previous generations. Worse, they distract us from tackling the real task at hand: how we help our country develop the infrastructure we need to lead in the 21st century information economy.

Press-driven, short-term thinking has consequences. Chambers noted that one reason for investing where he did was because Israeli leaders "understand the need to get ready for the future." Washington's habit of pointing fingers and obsessing about the past obviously hasn't convinced him, or other business leaders for that matter, that future-proofing our country is a US priority. Wouldn't it be nice if, instead, we had hearings on what we need to do today to lead 5, 10, or 15 years hence? Surely, a timeless lesson of the last four books of the Old Testament is this: The point is not to debate one's location in the desert. It is to get to the Promised Land.

The United States' National Broadband Plan recommended more than 200 actions government should take to improve our leadership prospects. Many focused on three foundation stones: using spectrum more efficiently, driving fiber deeper into the networks, and using broadband-enabled applications to better tackle today's economic and social problems. It mapped how a government upgrade agenda could create a virtuous cycle: upgraded networks stimulating advanced devices and applications, in turn propelling further network improvements, all driving economic growth and global leadership.

We've seen progress and setbacks on all three fronts, as is true for other countries. Israel, however, may become the first to leap ahead on all three -- achieving for that country what the plan aspired for ours. Israel will deploy fiber to the home, enabling more efficient spectrum use and driving new opportunities through Wi-Fi hot spots. While other countries have similar networks, none has Israel's abundant startup and developer community ready to exploit gigabit-everywhere connections to develop applications only possible when bandwidth does not constrain innovation. And Israel's entire government is planning to use this platform to improve government operations and services, amplifying the country's ability to deliver a better life for all.

Back here in the US, old policies continue to drive private capital to outmoded networks, and FCC policies under the previous chair actually made it more difficult to build world-leading networks. Until recently, incumbent providers waved off communities' desires for next-generation networks, insisting that customers don't want higher speeds.

Meanwhile, in our schools, when students take online assessments, the rest of the district must refrain from sending e-mail to avoid a network overload; our health care facilities find it quicker to send a thumb drive with CAT scan results via messenger than wait for the data to transfer; and a third of our homes don't even have broadband, which, among other things, is becoming the only way to apply for a job.

There are pockets of progress. The FCC is finally moving ahead with plans to bring gigabits to our classrooms and adjust rules that create barriers to investing in future-proof networks. Cities, working collaboratively with private enterprises and strategic local institutions like universities, have adopted new approaches to spark bandwidth upgrades. Incumbents are beginning to see faster networks as an opportunity.

Still, we lack the discipline that may enable Israel, rather than the United States, to be, in Chambers' words, "the example of how a fast broadband infrastructure will change society." If we want to be that example, we need to stop debating the past and start figuring out the future.

About the author

    Blair Levin is the former chief of staff for FCC Chairman Reed Hundt serving from 1993 to 1997. He has worked as a policy analyst for investment firm Legg Mason and then was managing director at Stifel Nicolaus. In 2008, he co-chaired the technology, innovation, and government reform transition team for President-elect Barack Obama and subsequently served as the executive director for the effort that produced the National Broadband Plan from 2009 to 2010. He currently heads up the Gig.U project, a consortium of 36 research university communities seeking to accelerate the deployment of next generation networks in the United States.

     

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