Time for a real Internet highway

CNET News.com's Harry Fuller says it's time that Uncle Sam took over the Internet--at least for a while.

Harry Fuller
Harry Fuller Executive editor, CNET News.com
Harry Fuller escaped from television work to be executive editor at CNET News.com.
3 min read
The recent tiff between Level 3 Communications and Cogent Communications caused a small digital quake.

No fatalities, minor damage. Work and play for some Internet users was interrupted or disrupted. A short inconvenience, but then normal life resumed.

This was not due to a natural disaster or even to hackers but rather to business considerations and competition. Didn't you feel like shouting? "Hey, it's not your Internet--no matter what company you are."

Two questions remain: Who owns the Internet? Is competition the best or only way to determine that ownership?

Some of the terms that have stuck to the Internet in its first decade as a commercial and public system are misleading. "New media" may be the most pernicious.

Who owns the Internet? Is competition the best or only way to determine that ownership?

Sure, the Internet is a great way to deliver content. We do that here at CNET News.com. But the Internet is not simply a new medium. It's also a marketplace. A global system for private communication. An art gallery without walls, an archive without shelves, the planet's largest collection of sound and music.

The list of Internet-based services is daunting. That scope means that the Internet is far more important than mere media. Daily, local newspapers are disappearing in America, and almost nobody is noticing. If certain TV or radio programs were to disappear for a day or a month, we'd all find substitutes. But take away the Internet?

The Internet is a utility, without which our daily lives cannot be productive or interesting. Governments, companies and institutions now need it to function. So do you and I.

Once upon a time in America, toll roads through the forests and canals were dug using private money. Both were owned by private companies. That didn't work. Public highways did. In 1956, President Eisenhower and Congress created the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.

As did political talk about the original Internet, some of the rhetoric explaining why the highway system needed to be made was based on what we now call "homeland security." See "defense" in the title? Well, you could picture National Guard units trucking back and forth on the weekends.

We already have our highway system and our electricity. The time has come for our broadband.

But the Interstate's real supporters and winners were car, rubber, steel and gas companies, motels and drive-in restaurants, shopping centers and vacationing families. It was federally funded, and it worked. Anybody want to sell I-5 to a private company? Picture this sign: "Sorry, you cannot exit onto Highway 63 because it belongs to our competition."

Even the most progovernment politician knows that you'd wait a long time before BigRoads Inc. put a highway into some small farming town of 600 people. No profit. If you want highway ubiquity, government has to do it.

A similar process put electricity into the less populated and poorer areas of America. Where I grew up, in the Missouri Ozarks, our electricity came from a federally supported co-op. No private company could turn a profit stringing copper wire up and down those thinly populated hills.

We already have our highway system and our electricity. Time has come for our broadband. It's a utility. We now need broadband to live, work, recreate and even make a profit. Whether in Palo Alto, Calif., or Cavalier, N.D., we need our broadband. Many local areas of America are attacking the need for broadband ubiquity, but perhaps it's time for a national program.

Fiber, cable or wireless--many areas of America are not going to run a profit for any broadband service provider. It's time for the National System of Interstate and Homeland Defense Broadband. Private companies will make billions building the system, as with the interstate highways. Once it's done, we'll all profit.