THE BLOG
05/12/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Broadband for All - America's Best Weapon of Mass Connection

Gregory Inc., a small printing firm in rural Kansas recently became keenly aware of the importance of high speed Internet. The firm knew their slow connectivity was potentially harmful to their business when they had trouble getting a complexly designed decal downloaded in time to meet an overnight deadline.

Knowing this, the rural company turned to a local Internet provider to install a lightning-fast fiber connection that took them from non-sufficient Internet service to state of the art. The company's IT director said that the new connectivity, "allows us to operate as if we're just down the street from you no matter where you are."

That experience is just one of millions of examples of why broadband connectivity matters to our nation. Higher speeds and robust connections allow more access and greater opportunity for businesses and individuals in the U.S., no matter their geography.

Broadband is critical to America's long-term economic and social well-being. High speed broadband and the innovation it can deliver can transform health care, lowering costs for all Americans by enabling telemedicine, remote monitoring for the elderly so they can stay in their homes longer, and improved care due to greater use of electronic health records. More broadband access will no doubt improve educational opportunities, training and job creation for all Americans as 70 percent of our young people now do their homework with the help of the Internet and millions participate in distant online learning. It could also transform our energy use by enabling a Smart Grid and lowering our energy bills. And more broadband access can improve public safety by enabling an interoperable network that would allow our first-responders to communicate effectively in times of crisis.

Broadband can also provide a pathway out of poverty for our most vulnerable. At One Economy, a nonprofit I founded in 2000, we were successful on a bipartisan effort called Bring IT Home that brought together a diverse group of non-profits, tech firms and Internet Service Providers to alter how states allocate low-income housing tax credits to enable the availability of broadband in low-income housing. As a result of this effort, forty-two states changed their policies and broadband was brought into the homes of over 300,000 low-income Americans.

Thus, America's public policies matter when it comes to expanding opportunity through broadband. The Federal Communications Commission next week will unveil their much anticipated National Broadband Plan. Their timing is right on as the United States now ranks 15th globally in broadband adoption and until this plan, we were the only major country without a strategic broadband plan.

Today, our current U.S. broadband adoption rate is about 65 percent, compared with 95 percent in South Korea and 88 percent in Singapore. For our low-income, minority, rural, tribal, and disabled households that adoption rate hovers below 50 percent. Today, roughly 26 percent of rural business sites do not have access to a standard cable modem and 9 percent lack even DSL. And more than 70 percent of small businesses have little or no mobile broadband.

In effect, this roadmap for broadband can represent the "North Star" for future American innovation leadership. Faster speeds and greater access can connect budding entrepreneurs and small businesses in rural Kansas or urban Detroit today to billions of potential customers across the planet.

The flagship part of the plan according to reports will be setting a goal of having 100 million U.S. households with broadband at speeds of 100 megabits per second by 2020. Speed matters as it can help unleash a host of American ingenuity to create new businesses and industries. I am proud to say that the visionary CEO leaders of TechNet called for this type of national blueprint and 100x100 goal roughly eight years ago because they know that digital infrastructure matters to bold economic growth.

The FCC deserves credit for the extraordinary public process implemented to develop this plan. They have solicited an unprecedented amount of feedback from all stakeholders in the debate. Most importantly, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and his team smartly determined that this plan should be openly transparent and data driven, not ideologically driven. That is both smart policy and good politics as we need the best ideas from all political stripes and interests.

For this plan to work however, we must fundamentally address the three "A's" of broadband:

Affordability - A recent survey from the FCC showed that affordability was the top reason that more people did not get broadband so we must do everything we can to bring down prices. The plan must revise outdated regulations to redirect subsidy programs to support affordable access to broadband in fair and efficient ways.

Availability - In rural areas in particular, we must do a better job of making broadband available. According to a recent survey by the U.S. Department of Commerce, only 54 percent of rural households had broadband. That is because phone and cable companies that provide the majority of broadband connections in America have been slower to build high-speed capability in places that are sparsely populated to justify the costly network investments. We must push for innovation in this area in wireless and wire-line to connect these areas.

Adoption - The most important goal of this effort should be that broadband is adopted by more individuals and businesses. Today, only 46 percent of African Americans and 40 percent of Hispanics have broadband and surveys show many don't see how it benefits them or it's too expensive. Again, this roadmap must help deliver creative solutions to alleviate barriers to adoption such as digital literacy. Raising awareness among all our citizens is imperative because getting online can mean transformative economic and education opportunities, just to name a few.

In just a few short decades, the affect of the Internet on our lives and economy has been profound. The Internet is responsible for $300 billion in economic activity in the United States and more than 3 million jobs, according to researchers at the Harvard Business School.

Simply put, wider adoption of broadband is one of the best fiscal stimulus policies we can make as a nation as new industries, companies and jobs are created as a result. One study showed that just a 7 percent increase in adoption could grow well over one million jobs.

Similar to the development of the Interstate highway system that took decades and helped facilitate trillions of economic activity, this plan to foster the power of broadband can set us on the same course. With quality adoption of this plan, broadband can be our nation's best weapon of mass connection to unbridled economic opportunity.

Rey Ramsey is President and CEO of TechNet (www.technet.org) and Chairman of One Economy (www.one-economy.com).