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Barack Obama and the Future of Broadband

Timothy Karr, a prominent net neutrality warrior-cum-blogger, has written a great piece for Huffington on what place broadband infrastructure spending should have in the current economic stimulus debate. Karr, I think rightly, sees investment in the information superhighway as analogous to real highway spending. Although the outlay to the government (and thus taxpayers) in the short-term is high, the increase in productivity, interconnectivity and new business models is worth the cost.

Corollary to this economic stimulus is the potential for greater information sharing, discussions and debates over the web. In short: the substance of civil society. The closer knit our fiber optics are, the argument goes, the more cacophonous, multi-perspectived and democratic our political discourse will become. While simply having access to information does not make an enlightened, reflective citizenry (witness the viral “Barack Obama is Muslim” conspiracy), I think, at the very least, connecting the last remaining segment of the American population without internet (mostly the urban poor and very rural areas) will bring new voices, concerns and constituencies into the national debate.

What makes this kind of internet investment such a pressing need is the United States’ now abysmal ranking (15th in the world) for broadband access. Due to sluggish competition and the sheer cost of large networks, the American market has been slipping in quality (speed and access) and rising in cost.

This outcome is equal parts low competition and market failure; with more concentrated resources, however, the government has the capacity to bridge the problem, just as universal road networks require public investment. As such, Obama should step up incentives for comprehensive build-out in broadband’s reach, while respecting that when it comes to actually delivering the internet, private companies will be more efficient.

Karr mentions this policy paper on Obama and internet stimulus spending by the advocacy group One of the most interesting details in this paper has to do with a joint public/private program currently underway in Switzerland, where fiber optics were being wired with capacity for multiple competitors (pg. 10). The Swiss government subsidizes building the necessary physical network, and then sells off the connections to competing private providors.

That strikes me like just the kind of smart public internet investment the Obama team should be thinking about. Moreover, the FreePress folks estimate (conservatively) that 38.2 billion dollars of stimulus for internet infrastructure could radically change things. While 38.2 billion is no pocket change, it doesn’t seem that much in the grand scheme of the near 800 billion in stimulus that Obama has proposed.

Obama has the potential (amid the flurry of references to FDR) to inflect his stimulus proposals not just with economic and employment relief, but also with the kind of transformative modernization which the Tennessee Valley Authority heralded by bringing electricity to Appalachia. Let us hear Obama’s New Deal for the internet.

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