There’s an old saying that the longest journey begins with a single step. It’s important to keep that saying in mind as we, as a nation, work to fulfill President Obama’s goal of bringing advanced wireless broadband services to all Americans.
The figures involved are staggering. At one point in 2009, the FCC offered an estimate that ubiquitous broadband could cost up to $350 billion — that’s almost 10 percent of the entire Federal budget for 2011 or about half the defense budget. Obviously, the government has other things to which it has committed money — Medicare, defense, education, housing – and money of this sort is simply not available for the asking, even if we were not living in times of large Federal deficits.
Even if $350 billion isn’t the right number, it is going to take a lot of money to be sure all Americans have equal access to the opportunities afforded by the broadband revolution.
Fortunately, there is a better way. Actually, there are two better ways.
The first is to harness the resources of the private sector. The good news is that private telecom companies are already eagerly playing their part in wiring America for the future. Telecom companies made tens of billions of dollars in investments last year alone, and much of that investment is focused on getting advanced broadband services (usually marketed as 4G) deployed in hundreds — soon to be thousands — of cities across the country. Those investments also promote wireline connections and maintain existing service for earlier wireless systems and networks.
The second better way is to focus on wireless rather than just wireline to make the connections of the future. America’s a big country and the best and quickest way to reach millions of Americans living in rural areas will be through advanced wireless services. These will offer the same speeds and ease of access that Americans in cities and suburbs enjoy and the deployments can be achieved much more quickly. At the very least, 4G wireless gives us another tool to reach more Americans; at the best, it provides a solution that reflects the needs of rural America as well as urban dwellers checking their smartphones or tablet computers.
But that smallest step I mentioned earlier? That’s important, too.
The FCC has just announced a $300 million grant for broadband deployment to rural areas. That sounds like a pittance in comparison with the private investment now taking place, but as the Commission notes, it “expects that carriers will likely supplement the [government] funding with private investment. While carriers are not required to participate, hundreds of thousands of Americans will gain access to broadband even if carriers only accept a portion of the money.” For those hundreds of thousands, access to broadband will open a new world of opportunity for business, jobs, education, healthcare, and entertainment. It puts rural America on an equal footing for competitiveness, and that alone makes the FCC program worthy of our support.
But as the FCC recognized, not only is much more needed, but the lion’s share of effort and investment will come from the private sector. The director of the National Broadband Plan seconded this view in stating that “[w]e have to recognize that most of this [broadband deployment] is funded by the private sector, and we expect that to continue.”
In short, government has a vital role to play, but only with private sector investment can we reach our national goal of near ubiquitous broadband. That’s why, in a global marketplace for capital, it is so important to ensure that the right regulatory policies are in place to attract capital to telecom — and to America. Private sector network operators have proven they are willing to make bold investments, if federal policy makers do not put up regulatory barriers to investment. And with the right mix of regulatory policies, strategic investment by the government, and large-scale private investment, all Americans can have 21st-century high speed advanced broadband services. It’s important for our economy and our future.