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.

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