In two days the Federal Communications Commission will open bidding on licenses for the wireless spectrum currently occupied by analog television signals. The decisions of companies that win those national licenses will determine the shape of wireless communications in the United States for years to come.
As large corporations calculate how to remake the national wireless communications markets, the federal government must also invest directly in advanced telecommunications infrastructure to build a safe, strong, and resilient United States. Federal investment in wireless broadband is needed to ensure our ability to respond rapidly and effectively to homeland security threats and natural disasters. The failures of communications networks during the 9/11 attacks and in the wake of Hurricane Katrina demonstrate the importance of investing in a robust and redundant infrastructure.
The importance of a national broadband infrastructure is analogous to the national interstate system spearheaded by President Eisenhower. Dubbed the “National Defense Highway System,” the network of roads connecting the entire country promoted national unity and commerce, and supported defense by allowing reliable, rapid transport of military equipment from state to state.
Americans would find it hard to imagine their country without access to the advanced highway system of the 20th century. But in order to meet the demands of catastrophe or defense, all Americans in the 21st century need access to telecommunications services that are continually upgraded, robust, redundant, and able to withstand multiple threats and uses. The federal government must revamp its broadband policy and invest in ubiquitous broadband for the new century.
President Bush suggested in 2004 that the United States should have “universal, affordable access to broadband technology by the year 2007.” Four years later, we have nothing resembling this system. The plan did not founder because of technological failures. Rather, the fact that half the country is not connected to an advanced high-speed communications network is a failure of public policy.
The result of administration neglect, industry intransigence, and the incompetence of a Federal Communications Commission—apparently "captured" by the industry it is supposed to regulate—has left the American people and most policymakers with no clear idea where broadband services are deployed in the United States. There is no credible dispute that the United States has fallen behind Canada and France and Japan and a dozen other industrial countries in broadband deployment.
The policy of relying on “market forces” that the Bush administration claimed for seven years would propel broadband access is irresponsible and insufficient. In my new report from Science Progress, "Ubiquity Requires Redundancy: The Case for Federal Investment in Broadband," I argue that without a robust broadband network connecting urban and rural America, the country is not only less competitive in the global economy, we will be ill-prepared to respond to national security threats and natural disasters.
The goal of federal investment in broadband should be first and foremost to ensure our ability to respond to threats to our homeland security and to natural disasters. Directly connected to this goal is the availability of advanced telecommunications services in our health care and educational systems—the modernization of which is key to our nation’s ability to respond to threats to our national security and public safety immediately and over the coming decades.
Without ubiquitous and redundant broadband our first responders could be crippled by the lack of effective communications in the event of a terrorist attack or natural disaster. Similarly, our educational and health care institutions need to be able to communicate quickly and effectively in case of a pandemic. In addition, the National Institutes of Health and our academic community need to be positioned to conduct research and development on all of the technologies needed to maintain our nation’s national defense and public safety.
In meeting these goals, federal investment should make certain that the U.S. communications infrastructure is continually upgraded, robust, redundant, and able to withstand multiple threats and uses. The public should not be left to rely on any one technology, but rather on multiple technologies—each able to operate with the other, and each able to serve important needs if the other technologies are destroyed or compromised. Market forces will not guarantee this result.