Set Aside Petty Differences and Build Broadband Economy

10/30/2013 06:00 pm ET | Updated Dec 30, 2013

The recently ended government shutdown has bred much deserved pessimism about Washington. But the Senate was able to offer hope for bipartisan with its confirmation of Tom Wheeler as FCC Chairman and Mike O’Rielly as an FCC Commissioner. Simply put, it's time to get Congress working again for the American people who are not interested in the petty partisanship and more interested in finding solutions for today's societal challenges.

The last time an impasse shut down the government, lawmakers quickly recognized that there was more to be gained working together than against one another. One of the products of those revelations was the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

Enacted with strong bipartisan support, the 1996 Telecommunications Act started what would become the foundation for the massive broadband expansion we've seen over the last 17 years. Congress, in a similar situation today, could look to update the laws governing our Internet ecosystem to encourage competition, investment and innovation using the same light-touch regulatory polices put forth during the 1990's.

This approach unleashed more than $1 trillion that has been invested in our Internet infrastructure since 1996, with more than $250 billion in the past three years alone.

These investments have caused U.S. wired Internet speeds to increase by 19 times in the past six years. The U.S. now has 69 percent of the entire globe's LTE subscribers and has the world's third-lowest entry-level pricing for broadband services, according to the OECD.

The advances in broadband have spurred significant job creation and economic growth. Today, more than 6.3 million people work in broadband and related ICT industries. And the mobile app industry, which did not even exist five years ago, now employs more than 750,000 Americans.

Broadband-enabled innovators are revolutionizing longstanding industries like education, healthcare, retail and media. Facilitated by the nearly ubiquitous availability of the Internet, entrepreneurs no longer need to have millions of dollars of capital to invest in a new business; instead they can launch a website or create an app for a fraction of the cost.

The advantages of these reduced barriers to entry are most apparent in the flood of part-time businesses that are being started using the Internet. A recent Internet Association report showed that Internet-enabled part-time businesses employ roughly 6.6 million workers and add about $141 billion to the U.S. economy.

From artists to technical consultants to musicians and web designers, the Internet is offering newfound flexibility and freedom. And thanks to the reduced startup costs, entrepreneurs can pursue their dreams without having to give up their full-time jobs.

While all of this was made possible by Congress' ability to transcend party politics and enact an intelligent Internet regulatory framework in the 1990s, there is more that still needs to be done. To enable all Americans to partake in the Internet economy, there must be universal broadband adoption.

In fact, recently the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee held a hearing on "The Evolution of Wired Communications Networks" which shed light on the need to modernize America's technology laws as our networks have evolved from TDM networks to the now modern IP-based networks.

Unfortunately, there is still a digital divide in this country. According to recent Pew studies, 38 percent of rural households and 43 percent of those with only a high school diploma have not adopted broadband at home. Of Americans who do not use the Internet, Pew research has also found that 21 percent are not interested, 13 percent say they do not have a computer, and 10 percent found the Internet to be too difficult to use. Demonstrating relevancy and improving literacy are therefore crucial for solving the broadband adoption problem.

Yet fortunately, the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet similarly held a hearing on Broadband Adoption that heard testimony from leading broadband stakeholders on how to bridge this digital divide. These solutions include Comcast's Internet Essentials program, which offers Internet packages for $9.95 per month, along with a low priced Internet-ready computer, and free digital literacy classes -- this offering is now used by over 1 million low-income Americans. Similarly, AT&T's Aspire program specifically helps children stay on track to graduate high school and be ready for the hi-tech future which awaits them. Verizon and Time Warner Cable both have programs that encourage students to get involved in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM)-related activities.

Low Internet adoption has serious ramifications for the long-term economic opportunities of these communities. In today's digital age, broadband is the great equalizer, allowing people of all races and backgrounds to gain access to information and educational opportunities. If we leave any of our citizens without connectivity, they will be at a significant disadvantage as they move forward in life.

It is with this in mind that I urge Congress to work together as they did in 1996 when they established the current Internet regulatory framework. Coming off a similar government shutdown, we were able to overcome political ideology and implement smart broadband policies that laid the foundation for robust and long-term economic gains. Technology issues are a productive, non-ideological place for Congress to begin making progress. Currently, there are a number of bills with bipartisan support that would strengthen telehealth, ban state and local taxes on broadband subscriptions, and standardize the taxation of digital goods. These bills would help boost the technology industry and show the American people that the two parties can work together to grow the economy.

Gains can only continue if all Americans are adopting and utilizing the networks available to them -- something every U.S. citizen could get behind. Congress should set aside petty differences and do the same.

Harold Ford Jr. is a former Democratic member of Congress from Tennessee and an honorary co-chair of Broadband for America, whose members include Verizon, AT&T, Comcast and Time Warner Cable.