Friday, April 21, 2006

We Need a National Infrastructure Initiative

Good article on improving our national broadband infrastructure......

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We Need a National Infrastructure Initiative

By John Eger
Apr 19, 2006
The United States, developer of the Internet, inventor of the first PC, the silicon wafer, the pen-based computer etc, is now 12th in the world in using broadband communication, according to the latest report out of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a government think tank in Paris to which almost all developing countries belong.

Although we still have the largest number of users connected to the Internet -- some 49 million according to the report -- we are 12th in terms of broadband penetration. While "broadband" itself is a term not well defined, it is several times faster in most countries like South Korea and Japan than in the US. South Korea, which has been the leader for many years, was topped this year by Iceland. With only 78,000 subscribers, they are number one because of their per capita penetration of broadband which is 26.7 percent versus Korea's 25.4 percent. The U.S. is 16.8 percent.

Quite understandably there is concern across America about the U.S.'s low ranking by the OECD and as a result of similar studies by the United Nations' International Telecommunications Union, where the U.S. is ranked even lower on the totem pole. Having the 21st century infrastructure -- broadband and wireless communications links connected to every home, office and school and through the Web to billions of others -- is considered to be vital to the success of every region's, every nation's, every community's vibrancy in the new economy.

Currently in the U.S., there is perceived to be a nationwide struggle for dominance between the traditional telephone carriers providing both DSL, and in some cases fiber communications to the pedestals -- rarely to the home -- versus cable modems provided by the cable television industry. The electric utilities have been experimenting with broadband over power lines, but other than a handful of experiments across the country, nothing akin to a real alternative additional market competitor is in sight.

Satellite companies are offering an Internet alternative at varying speeds, and pose a possible challenge to the existing cable and Telco monopolies. But this competitive arrangement is not getting us as a nation where we ought to be going.

There is a strong and growing desire on the part of cities and communities across America to help shape their own basic communications infrastructure for the 21st century. Many believe that like waterways, railroads and highways of the past, robust information highways are essential to keep cities from becoming the ghost towns of the 21st century.

While the cable and Telco monopolies in many states have blocked municipal authorities from providing fiber as an alternative, half of the cities -- according to a recent report -- are exploring wireless alternatives. This appears to be a loophole in the fight for broadband, and many cities are taking so-called Wi-Fi technology and deploying it in "hot spots" particularly downtowns, in order to get some advantage.

Companies like Intel, Cisco and even Google have recently expressed strong interest in helping to provide broadband wireless infrastructure directly to the cities and are looking for partnerships at the municipal level. Municipalities meanwhile, representing the largest users in most communities, having no real expertise in these areas, are anxious to have partners who can show them the way.

There is a great deal of doubt about the right technology for such broadband infrastructures be they wired or wireless. How much broadband is enough broadband? And is that upstream or downstream? More importantly, perhaps, what makes economic sense? How best to roll out such a system in a community?

Equally important, should a community pursue a wireless alternative when most of us believe both wired and wireless will be necessary? If we need to use technology as a transforming tool for e-commerce, e-government, e-health -- e-everything as we move along the pathway to becoming a 21st century smart community -- don't we need both and maybe more to create a robust community-wide information infrastructure?

While the U.S. continues its downward slide one must ask, what is it about South Korea and Finland? What do they see that we don't? Why have they been able to move so quickly and provide broadband in such quantity?

FCC Chairman, Kevin Martin told the Wall Street Journal recently that the low population density of Korea made it highly unfair to compare it to the U.S. It is true that the capital city of Seoul -- which itself accounts for a quarter of the approximately 50 million population of Korea -- is chock-a-block with high rises, making broadband communications much easier than in a country as dispersed as the U.S. But this experience is dissimilar to that of Iceland, Norway or Sweden, which have even lower population densities than the U.S. So density itself may not be the advantage that South Korea has. South Korea and Iceland, moreover, provide broadband in some cases eight times faster than the U.S.

What does seem to be common in South Korea and Iceland however is that both countries recognize that such infrastructure means the difference between success and mere survival in the new economy. Both countries therefore have adopted "goals", and benchmarks to reach those goals. Both have adopted long-range plans to transform their countries using technology.

There is a strong desire on the part of national governments to achieve penetration rates and service levels in a matter of months and years. These metrics and longer-range goals and are well understood by all the providers and consumer community. Government meets regularly with the private sector to help set those goals and importantly, works with communities and providers to meet them. It has laid out billions of dollars to provide a high-speed backbone to link government and public institutions and additional billions and incentives to provide similar service to so-called rural areas. It is true that the U.S., after all, created the Internet, and has made an attempt to provide some incentives to our rural areas, but nothing of the order or magnitude of South Korea, Iceland or other leading broadband countries.

All this calls for unique federal, state and local action. Perhaps something akin to the 1987 Advanced Television Advisory Committee (ATC) should be established. The ATC was created by the FCC to help develop high-definition television standards for use by broadcast, cable, satellite and importantly, computer and software industries, and to create some guidelines for advanced television usage for entertainment, health care, education or government. It was clear that there were standards to be set and goals to be established. America was behind Japan, which had already spent several billion dollars establishing its standard -- albeit, an analog one.

Within a few years this committee -- well represented by all the players and consumers alike -- produced meaningful guidelines for the FCC. We are today in a similar position. We are behind the rest of the world in a field in which we must lead. Our nation depends heavily upon the production use and transfer of knowledge-based products and services. We have pretty much lost our manufacturing capacity.

Now that the world is flat, as author Thomas Friedman says, we are seeing more and more of our high tech and biotech goods and services being outsourced. This however is only a symptom of the larger global economy. Increasingly other countries will be developing their own high tech goods and services.

For us to compete, for us to survive, we must develop the infrastructure of the 21st century much faster than we have been, and incentivize whole communities to begin using these new infrastructures to begin transforming their communities to compete in this new global economy. We must assure our cities that they can and should plan on building their information highways, in partnership with existing providers, and help them by clearing away the regulatory hurdles and logistical doubts. We need to set the standards for interconnection, and encourage alliances and partnerships as needed. We must develop a new deregulatory framework to promote broadband deployment and continued innovation. We must in short, establish and sustain a National Infrastructure Initiative to get our country back on track.

John M. Eger, a telecommunications lawyer, and Van Deerlin Professor of Communications and Public Policy at San Diego State University, was also director the White House Office of Telecommunications Policy.
John Eger


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