All systems go for broadband

Although NASA has retired the 30-year-old space shuttle program, that doesn’t mean Americans have stopped shooting for the moon. American ingenuity is creating an out-of-this-world experience right here on the ground.

Today, we are able to wirelessly download books and magazines to tablets we can manipulate with our fingertips.

We can access Spotify, the world’s largest record store, from anywhere — for free. We can chat with friends and loved ones with crystal-clear video and audio quality. Our mobile phones now double as everything from credit cards to house keys.

All of these technologies rely on America’s robust high-speed Internet infrastructure, a network born in part from the kind of bipartisan political agreement — in this case, the decision in 1996 to replace regulation with competition to spawn what would become high-speed data networks — that almost seems alien to us today.

Indeed, the loss of this bipartisan consensus-building has, in telecommunications, created a fractured debate where the extremes get the attention, and where consensus on how to build the next phase of the broadband revolution is lost.

Some of the more extreme critics today claim that Internet service providers have failed to invest in our broadband infrastructure. But in the past 15 years — the period after which a Republican-led Congress and the Clinton administration agreed to overhaul the nation’s communications laws — telephone, cable, wireless and satellite companies have invested more than a trillion dollars, which exceeds the investment of nearly any other industry.

Even during the Great Recession, broadband companies continued to upgrade and invest, to the tune of $250 billion since 2008. The networks they built — and continue to expand — reach 95 percent of the country. If there ever was proof positive that taking an affirmative, laissez-faire approach to an industry can encourage investment, this is it.

Other naysayers say our broadband speeds are too slow and thereby in need of government intervention. But customers in about four out of five American homes today can download data at 100 megabits per second — enough to cue up an entire album in just three seconds. Fourteen million homes have access to an all-fiber network that can offer 300-Mbps service. And by the end of 2012, almost every home in America will be able to purchase fourth-generation wireless service that can deliver up to 20 Mbps while the user is on the go. Each of these announcements was recently issued and is unlikely to be the last.

Others argue that there is too little competition and, as a result, prices are too high for Internet access.

Yet the Internet marketplace features considerable product differentiation to appeal to consumers of all stripes. Americans can choose anywhere from six to a dozen wired and wireless Internet providers. Prices range from mobile data for as little as $15 a month all the way to massive data pipes fit for a business that cost hundreds of dollars.

Several European and Asian countries have experimented with government-funded networks, requirements that broadband Internet providers lease capacity to consumers and the price controls for which the critics thirst. In all cases, consumers have been left with fewer choices, slower speeds and a hefty tax bill.

Plus, those countries are light years behind the U.S. in terms of communications infrastructure investment. The last thing we should do is jeopardize our position as the world’s leader in broadband network investment with an unnecessary change in course.

Our broadband investment has helped new entrepreneurs find financial success in what the prestigious Progressive Policy Institute calls the “app economy,” which has created half a million jobs and is the key to future productivity.

Clifford Young is a professor of public administration at Cal State San Bernardino.

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