Two interesting and related things are occurring simultaneously in the United States: The nation's broadband status continues to drop like a rock and it is in the throes of electing a new president.
It's extraordinarily complex to discuss policy and candidates, mainly because what politicians say on the campaign trail generally has only the vaguest relationship to what they will do once sworn in. Still, it is important to get a good read on the candidates' stance on various issues. Broadband policy isn't on the same level as Iraq and more immediate economic issues, but it clearly is a top-10 issue akin to health care and Social Security reform.
A lot has been made during the past few weeks about Sen. John McCain's unfamiliarity with the Internet. Whether that truly matters -- it is not necessary to know how to do something to recognize its importance -- is debatable. It also is fair to point out that McCain has given a significant platform to Carly Fiorina, the ex-CEO of HP. Obama, for his part, has a broadband platform that experts say is more detailed and expansive than McCain's.
The issue here isn't to endorse a candidate. It is to say that the IT and telecommunications industry must push for real commitment to improving America's broadband infrastructure. The importance of the topic clearly is getting through. The most interesting element of this Brookings Institute press release and round-table transcript highlighting six new policy papers from Hamilton Project is that physical and electronic infrastructure are bundled together. Two of the papers released and discussed are "The Untapped Promise of the Wireless Spectrum" and "Bringing Broadband to Unserved Communities." Hopefully, the campaign staffs are listening.
There seems to be an increasing consensus that a national policy is needed. Cable operators and telcos, if left to their own devices, only will react in ways designed to help their bottom line. Indeed, unless forced by law to do otherwise, their responsibility is to their owners, not the service of some conceptual public good.
Relying on the free market to create a competitive infrastructure simply hasn't worked. This Heavy Reading post by Stan Hubbard is in reaction to a column by a fellow site writer Graham Finnie (the link is provided). The post's theme is that the United States is behind the eight ball in not having an overall national broadband policy. Instead of creating such a policy, the United States is satisfied with laudable, but seemingly minor initiatives.
Since the feds are largely AWOL, the task has been picked up -- at least to some extent -- by the states. This is by definition a fragmentary approach despite wonderful local projects. One such project is ConnectKentucky. The Wall Street Journal says that 95 percent of homes in the state now have access to broadband, an increase of 35 percent compared to 2004, when the program began. ConnectKentucky is 90 percent state- and 10 percent business-funded. Hopefully, the essence of this project can be replicated at the national level.
Budde Communications has the advantage of closely following the U.S. market from somewhere else. It doesn't seem to matter, though, since it comes up with the same reason for the fading of U.S. broadband competitiveness as most insiders here:
Having left broadband development largely to the private sector, the U.S. market has been typified by a cosy cable-DSL duopoly which has been slow to embrace the latest technologies. In this regard, the U.S. could learn from the national broadband initiatives of Japan, South Korea and Canada.
In other words, the United States has lagged way behind because the system favors the status quo over innovation, and nobody makes carriers reach beyond their own bottom lines. Whether that should be confronted or encouraged is an extremely basic philosophical issue -- and an important one to be addressed by anyone who wants to be president.