Liberty and Broadband for All: A Policy Primer

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For the first time, the United States has a National Broadband Plan, and a bit of money to spend building infrastructure. In recent weeks, there has been plenty of debate about whether the plan is ambitious enough, as well as deeper soul searching about what the proper role of government in building the nation's Internet infrastructure should be. Just Sunday, Wall Street Journal tech columnist Walt Mossberg called for a more expansive broadband vision.

There are legitimate questions about the plan, but little time or space is committed to understanding the details of how we're going to build this 21st century infrastructure. So
in this occasional series, America the Connected, we'll be talking with different sorts of experts -- historians, political scientists, technologists, policy wonks, engineers, entrepreneurs -- about the National Broadband Plan. Each one will take the form of a statement, edited and condensed from a longer interview. As more come in, we'll offer you a landing page where you can compare and contrast their views.

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Up first is Robert Atkinson, head of The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a think tank devoted to technological issues of national importance. His group was one of the more influential pushing for Congress to enact a plan like this. We asked Atkinson, who could go deeper on all these subjects, to lay out the basics here as a sort of primer on some of the key issues at play.

DEFINING SUCCESS

I would define the goal of a national plan not simply as the construction of a series of networks, but ultimately as the robust use of broadband. You could build an unbelievably great network and if nobody signed up for it, it doesn't really get you very much. The plan is quite good in recognizing that, and in addressing issues beyond the physical network.

It turns out that the reason why we're behind some other nations in broadband is adoption rates, not network deployment. We have the highest rate of cable deployment in the world, for example, but we have relatively low rates of computer ownership, and if you don't have a computer, you aren't likely to subscribe to broadband.

We held a debate about a month ago about whether the U.S. was behind on broadband, and if so, was it because of a failure of our policies. (We argued that it was not due a failure of regulation).

One of the things we calculated is that if we had the same computer ownership as the top six OECD nations (assuming that the same ratio of computer ownership to broadband adoption), we'd be fifth in the overall broadband rankings, not 15th. So addressing issues of digital adoption and use are equally important as making policies directed to the network itself.

THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE MONEY

I think the plan was very, very good. The best thing in the plan is its proposal to take much of the largely wasted TV spectrum and put it into wireless broadband. We can get by with much less TV spectrum (and still have very good TV broadcasting) and doing so will enable the next wave of the mobile broadband revolution. But this will be a tough fight as the broadcasters want to keep the spectrum they never paid for.

If I have to have any criticism of the plan, it's two-fold. First, it was three or four years late. We were quite late to developing a national plan. Many other countries had put their strategies in place in the early part of the last decade. But better late than never.

Second, the biggest limitation of the plan is that it doesn't have much money behind it. The plan can talk all it wants about wanting to get high speeds to a large number of people -- 10 megabyte download speeds for 100 million people, say -- and that's all well and good, but what's the real mechanism by which you do that?

If you want to accelerate that, you have to put some public investment behind it, either in grants and/or tax incentives. The Swedes had a stimulus package for the last recession (early 2000s) and invested a lot more than us in grants and tax incentives for broadband. If you adjust for the size of the countries' populations, the U.S. would have had to invest $32 billion to match the Swedish spend. We did $7.2 billion in the stimulus package. That's better than zero, but nowhere near what it should have been.

ON WHY JAPAN AND SOUTH KOREA LEAD IN BROADBAND

A major reason Japan and South Korea lead in broadband is that their governments had aggressive broadband policies, including letting the carriers write off their network investments on an accelerated schedule. The way that it works here is if a broadband provider puts in $1 billion in a new network, they can write off only a very small share each year on their taxes. The Japanese and Koreans let providers write off these investments much faster, thereby reducing the taxes they had to pay. 

The other reason is that both the Japanese and Korean governments pressured the companies to invest more in broadband. I was in Seoul for a study we did and I've also talked extensively with the Japanese. The major incumbents are owned by the government or were recently owned, like Korea Telecom, and are quite influenced by the government. In Japan in particular, the CEOs also have this ethos that while we are profit-making, we are also part of Japan Inc., and have a responsibility to invest more.

THE POLITICS

There are some issues about whether to regulate broadband, but the real partisan issues in this debate are not so much about the plan itself. In the last five years broadband has become motherhood and apple pie: everyone is in favor of more of it.

What is not motherhood and apple pie, at least to many, is the issue of net neutrality [pdf]. That's one reason why they didn't put anything in the plan about net neutrality because it was so incredibly decisive.

I think the FCC risks being distracted from the key work of implementing plan because of the net neutrality and Title I versus Title II regulatory decision they are focused on. Congress is distracted. Everyone is distracted. If we devoted even one-quarter of the attention to the broadband plan that we devote to the hyper-partisan, hyper-emotional issues of net neutrality, we'd be in a lot better place.

While many Democrats are focused on net neutrality, many Republicans are not focused on the plan. In fact, it's unlikely they ever would have come up with a plan. The Bush administration had eight years to come up with one and they never did. The idea of developing a strategy and thinking it through and bringing in real experts is more of a Democratic idea because they are more willing to think about the role of government. But it's also not the sort of thing where Republicans are going to go crazy and oppose this as some kind of statist French industrial policy .

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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