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America's Broadband Networks Are 'Passports to Economic and Social Citizenship'

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If there's one theme that dominates American history, it's the constant drive for a better future. Whether sending explorers westward to open new lands and opportunities or aiming upward at the moon, we've always invested our energy and resources to seize the opportunities of the next frontier. Now, the digital age is offering the United States another chance to shape the future in ways that will open doors for every American. For me, that's the takeaway from a recent Broadband for America forum, "America's New National Pastime: The Innovative and Competitive Internet Marketplace," about the innovation that takes place daily on the Internet via high-speed broadband. During this event, former Clinton Administration official Ev Ehrlich said: "The web is now the avatar of markets. It is the single most important part of our economy now.... Networks are a passport to economic and social citizenship." That's a powerful message.

Access to the Internet is so critical to society. Want to learn something new, listen to a symphony, get help with a medical problem, earn a college degree, connect to your Congressman, find a job, or keep in touch with a friend? You can do it online. All it takes is a broadband connection to deliver you to the Internet so you can prospect and explore. For minorities, the Internet is a chance to assist in leveling the playing field and lift themselves up in ways never before available. For those in poor urban neighborhoods or remote rural communities that are often bypassed by economic opportunity or whose schools lack resources enjoyed by the more affluent, high-speed broadband connections can help bridge the gaps.

For example, the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C. has contracted with the University of Texas Medical Branch for remote medical services for researchers in Antarctica. With advanced high-speed broadband service, similar health care will be available to the rest of us, too. We will be able to "visit" our doctor for routine checkups and other services without leaving home or taking time off from work. With the right digital tools, checking vital signs, reading X-Rays and conducting other medical evaluations can all occur remotely - helping improve patient health outcomes in every community.

President Obama explained the positive impact of broadband in this way: "Building a nationwide broadband network will strengthen our economy and put more Americans back to work. By connecting every corner of our country to the digital age, we can help our businesses become more competitive, our students become more informed and our citizens become more engaged."

That's the vision, and Americans are racing toward it at a record pace. But, there's still plenty of work to do. For example, African Americans and Hispanics continue to lag behind whites in enjoying broadband service in their home. While people of color have embraced wireless alternatives at an impressive rate, too many can't afford a connection in their living room or the personal computer they need to access the Internet. To be sure, some people simply prefer wireless because it travels with them everywhere they go. But, for many, high quality home broadband is either too expensive or not yet available where they live.

One way to fix that problem is to finish upgrading our communications networks for the digital age. Not too long ago, in a transition managed by the federal government, America increased its technological efficiency by moving all of its television service to fully digital networks. Now we must do the same for our nation's communications networks, by replacing a system built over 80 years ago for voice phone service with Internet-based technology designed specifically to deliver every form of digital data, including phone calls. In fact, the FCC's National Broadband Plan has called this transition "the great infrastructure challenge of the early 21st Century."

Completing that transition, which will require billions of dollars in new investment by service providers, will create more choices for consumers, spur innovation and create new jobs as the companies who build and operate the networks expand. As these high-speed broadband networks are deployed, competition heats up and customers will have more options, better service, and better prices. That means more Americans in every part of our country - cities, suburbs and rural communities; in rich and poor communities alike -- will have greater access to high-speed broadband and be able to enjoy the opportunities that come with it. Since 1996, service providers have invested $1 trillion in wired and wireless broadband infrastructure. New investments will help grow America's broadband infrastructure, fuel innovation and benefit consumers.

American consumers are already moving toward the future on their own; the vast majority are already using broadband infrastructure for voice, video and data. Policymakers in Washington should build on what consumers have started by designing a regulatory structure that applies to all providers equally and encourages investment, to finish the shift quickly and build a better future for America. As repeatedly reinforced at the Broadband for America forum, the answer is to continue down the light-touch regulatory path started under the Clinton Administration. If we do, America's digital global competitiveness will be preserved well into the 21st Century.

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