Ask a teenager about using a "pager" and almost assuredly their only reference to this nearly obsolete form of communication would come from the resurgence of "Old School" 90s Hip Hop taking place. Despite the virtual disappearance of "SkyPagers" from popular use, in FY2011 $934,000 in federal E-Rate funds to assure access to advanced communications technology in U.S. schools and libraries were allocated for paging services.
President Obama wants to repurpose anachronistic budget items like this through his ConnectED plan. The plan would connect 99 percent of American students to the digital age through high-speed broadband in schools and libraries, get educational software into the classroom and train teachers in the use of this new technology. Within five years, schools would have "high-speed" broadband at speeds not less than 100 Mbps, with a target of 1 Gbps -- the same ultra-fast high speeds we are starting to see deployed in cities around the country.
But imagine if the whole country was made to keep paying for outdated services like "pagers" while most citizens were texting each other photos and videos on PDAs. Seems silly right? Well, something similar is actually happening with our commercial telecommunication's network.
Today, less than one third of all households still get what's known as "plain, old telephone service." In fact, voice telephone calls represents only one percent of traffic carried over broadband networks. Yet, because the country still uses two different phone systems, the government forces phone companies to maintain and operate both of them -- the new system that people want and the President seeks for every school, and the old, antiquated network for which spare parts are now becoming more difficult to find. Every time someone chooses to "cut the cord" and switches to a mobile phone, or someone purchases home phone service through a cable provider, another person transitions to a modern broadband-based network.
In response to consumer demand, phone companies are investing tens of billions of dollars in high-speed broadband networks, but it's very tough to modernize quickly when money must still be diverted to old networks. Given that our futures are tied to the 21st century digital age, we must move the nation away from the aging phone system ASAP so we can use the cost savings to upgrade the modern network.
A study last year from the Internet Innovation Alliance (which I co-chair) estimated that incumbent network operators spent $81 billion over the last six years just to maintain this fast-declining network. That's money that ought to be redeployed to the better, faster broadband networks people want and need today. We know that the phone companies are willing to make the investments; it's just a question of where they will make them -- building the new system or patching up the old one?
By phasing out old networks and encouraging higher levels of private investment in ultra high-speed broadband build-out to anchor institutions such as schools, libraries, universities and hospitals, we will help broaden access to this vital infrastructure everywhere, bringing it within reach of all Americans. It's great to have this network in schools, but it will only be fully effective if our children have that same access at home, to do their homework and gain the skills they will need for the jobs of tomorrow.
With ConnectED, the President has said that only high-speed broadband can bring our students fully into the digital age. It's a great start, but the rest of the country needs to move forward aggressively as well.
With our adoption of smartphones and mobile broadband, most Americans realize all the benefits that high-speed broadband can bring. It's now time to finish the job, and prioritize the goal of modernizing to high-speed broadband networks, so that no one is left behind and denied the economic opportunities enabled by these next-generation networks and technologies.
The music and styles of the 1990s might be enjoying a pop culture comeback, but the country can't afford to hold on to "throw-back" telecommunications infrastructure out of nostalgia. The same way we must update the E-Rate program that still funds paging services for schools, the entire nation needs to complete the transition away from the aging telephone network to modern state-of-the-art high-speed broadband networks. Our future depends on it.