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Saturday, October 21, 2006

Free Highways : 20th Century as ...

Cheap cars and free highways transformed America in the 20th Century. $100 laptops and free wi-fi broadband can do the same thing for the 21st Century.

It is a simple analogy ...

Free highways : 20th Century as Free Wi-Fi : 21st Century.

The Internet is our new national highway, or it should be. Like the original highway system, it is fundamental to both our national economic and security future. There will be a direct correlation between levels of broadband penetration and a nation's capacity for innovation and growth rates. That correlation probably exists already.

It's all about highways. Asphalt highways are about getting from here to there (a far away "there") quickly. Broadband is about the same thing, only you are moving across cyberspace, and moving much faster.

The U.S. -- indeed every government -- should treat broadband Internet access as priority public infrastructure. Investing in building broadband networks is as important today as construction of the national highway system was in the 1940s.

The highway system would not have worked if only most people could drive on it. It would not have worked if a few companies controlled the on ramps, or bundled packages of roads together for a fixed access price. Anything like that would have only one effect: fewer users and less economic activity. It is the same for broadband Internet.

The debate over "net neutrality" is important. But, honestly, it is in some ways a "high class" problem, as FCC Chairman William Kennard notes in his op-ed article in today's NY Times. The bigger debate is whether government should invest in broadband Internet as public infrastructure and a national priority?

Let's face the reality that Lawrence Lessig so perfectly describes ... "U.S. broadband sucks — it is too slow, it is too expensive, and it is too unavailable." His FT piece is here.

Chairman Kennard makes some excellent points, but misses the mark in his final words. As he put it, policymakers should focus on "getting affordable broadband access to those who need it." Actually, we should focus on getting affordable broadband access to EVERYONE.

2 comments:

musa said...

what about all those 3G licences cell phone companies paid for and WiMax and WiBro? All this infrastructure investment is privately financed. The great depression built the Interstate highway system with gvt financed labour. Should gvts get involved to make WiFi freely available?

Jeff Kaplan said...

Musa,

I'm not saying that private sector should get out of the game, but that public sector should get into the game. Fact is that there is precious little genuine competition in broadband. Most households only have either one or 2 choices.

And if one accepts the idea that broadband infrastructure is just as important as highway infrastructure was in the 1940s, there needs to be a better way to improve access to it. That may require some affirmative government action that results in a mix of public and private.

For example, I would expect to see more not less municipal broadband created over the next 10 years.

I mean really, are you happy with how Internet access works in Paris?