12/15/2010 08:24 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Speed Matters

This isn't a post about the United States Senate.

It's about America's failure to keep up with the rest of the world in creating a high-speed broadband infrastructure. Working with the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the NAACP, the Sierra Club has been trying to encourage American communities to catch up with -- well, yes, there's always Japan and Germany and South Korea -- but as of this month the U.S. has fallen behind Romania in the overall performance of our broadband connectivity.

49 percent of American households with internet connections fail to meet the FCC's minimum standards, and only 1 percent of American communities meet the global benchmarks. This morning I joined CWA, FCC chair Julius Genachowski, and other partners to release the latest assessment of how different American states rank on broadband access. Rhode Island ranks first and South Dakota last -- a situation that highlights one of America's major challenges: Rural America is being left behind.

The report was released at the National Press Club, and I made the point that in the early 1950s a different panel of Americans announced in this same building the vision of an Interstate Highway System -- and that generation got it done. The interstate highways transformed America in ways both good and bad -- but they connected the entire country, and they were a national endeavor aimed at making America the best.

The interstate highways also had a consequence unforeseen by President Eisenhower when he launched the effort -- they drained America dry. The abundant domestic oil on which the interstate system was to be fueled began to run out and, instead of moving on to the next generation of innovation, America just kept importing more and more oil.

Now we need to start innovating again. Broadband access is a key part of the solution to our addiction to imported oil -- and to the effects of that addiction on the climate and the environment. Billions of gallons of oil each year are wasted by a couple of two-ton vehicles carrying one 175-pound person to a meeting with another 150-pound person -- when, with broadband, the two could have done their work without ever starting an engine. In fact, effective broadband has been estimated to offer the potential to cut wasteful driving enough to save $20-40 billion a year. That's a full 10 of our oil-imports bill. Overall, fully connecting America with broadband access could eliminate 13 to 22 percent of our greenhouse-gas emissions.

But this generation of Americans is not getting it done. At our present pace, it will take us 60 years to bring our broadband capacity up to the level that South Korea enjoys today. Genachowski is determined to change this picture with a National Broadband Plan. Let's hope he succeeds. Unlike energy policy, broadband access shouldn't be regionally divisive. Unlike climate change, it pushes no one's ideological hot buttons. Unlike energy taxes, it's not yet partisan.

The Sierra Club is partnering with communities in Iowa, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia to work with local officials to find ways to bring America into the broadband age -- making sure that there is an anchor institution in each community with at least one gigabyte of broadband service. The project in Virginia, in Charles City County, is the first out of the gate and involves a rural and largely African American community, as well as a partnership between local government, CWA Local 2201, and the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club.

As Genachowski admits, it won't be easy. But solving this broadband problem is an opportunity for Americans to prove that we can still come together to meet a national challenge.