Broadband Advice Not in Short Supply for Obama


By all appearances, President-Elect Barack Obama is a broadband kind of guy. Savvy use of the Internet as a fundraising tool was a vital element of his election. As IndyWeek points out, he has released post-election videos on YouTube and is rebelling at demands that he surrender his BlackBerry once he takes the oath of office.


We will see, however, just how able he is about fulfilling campaign promises to upgrade our national broadband infrastructure. Clearly, there is no reason to doubt his intentions. It's just that politicians have long histories of not delivering, either because they weren't serious in the first place or because reality intervened after they took office. Perhaps those sorts of sneaking suspicions drove the recent spate of meetings, conferences and speeches aimed at nudging the new administration. Maybe it simply is a normal element of a changeover in leadership. It could be a bit of both.


One meeting, held in Washington this week announced the creation of a large group whose goal is aptly summed up in its name: A Call to Action for a National Broadband Strategy. It is comprised of 57 companies, some of whom-such as Google and Verizon-probably feel awkward sitting next to each other on the same side of an issue. This long piece elucidates the group's goals, which cover the apple pie and puppy dog items such as smart grid, telemedicine and distance learning.


The fun starts when the writer begins digging a bit into natural fault lines that separate various members of the coalition. The very issues that generally keep the parties on different sides of the fence-such as Net neutrality, for instance-won't magically disappear because they share the one goal of pushing Obama to pay as much attention to broadband after January 20, 2009, as he did before.


The IndyWeek piece that notes Obama's geeky proclivities also points out, as I have, that the economic crisis could be an impediment to achieving broadband goals set out during the campaign. The writer points out that significant improvements in the broadband landscape are as much a state as national undertaking, and points to North Carolina as effectively harnessing local power. Specifically, she discusses the North Carolina Research and Education Network, or NCREN, a statewide fiber network that connects the University of North Carolina and North Carolina Community College systems. The piece goes into significant detail. At the highest level, the story illustrates the significant long-term effort that must go into creating a robust statewide infrastructure.


Obama-and Congress, for that matter-have no shortage of people telling them what to do. Network World describes a meeting last month of The Internet Innovation Alliance, in which industry experts were asked to talk about the need for guaranteeing national broadband access.


Presenters included Susan Patrick, the president of the North American Council for Online Learning. She said that investments in online learning are inconsistent. The Harvard Kennedy School of Government's Elaine Kamarck and the John Hopkins School of Medicine's Dr. Jay Sanders discussed telemedicine. United States Internet Industry Association President David McLure spoke on the importance of actually bringing people into the digital loop -- not just making sure that there is coverage in their areas -- and Nemertes analyst Mike Jude detailed his firm's expectations that bandwidth demand will outstrip capacity by 2011. Not everyone agrees with Nemertes.


At still another meeting, Randall Stephenson, the CEO of AT&T, in a speech at a Wall Street Journal-sponsored event, tied investment in broadband to the stimulus package Obama is said to be pushing. Stephenson said that investment in infrastructure will stimulate job creation and commercial growth.


It is clear that Obama's goal is to invest in broadband. The hope is that the economy enables him to do so, and that he chooses the right strategy from among those being offered by so many experts. It also would be a good idea to let the guy hold onto his BlackBerry.