by Bruce Mehlman and Larry Irving

Electricity reached one-quarter of Americans 46 years after its introduction. Telephones took 35 years and televisions 26 years. Already, in just six years, broadband has reached 25 percent penetration, according to McKinsey & Co.

The exponential explosion of digital content on the Internet is striking. YouTube alone consumes as much bandwidth today as the entire Internet consumed in 2000. Users upload 65,000 new videos every day and download 100 million files daily, a 1,000 percent increase from just one year ago. The market research firm IDC predicts that this year the amount of information created will surpass, for the first time, the storage capacity available. Those fearing a bandwidth shortage are taking preemptive actions, such as the Defense Department’s recent cutoff of soldiers’ access to content-rich sites such as YouTube and MySpace.

Driven by a critical mass of fast connections and the arrival of a “killer application”—video—broadband has arrived. Broadband, or high-speed Internet connectivity, is the transformative technology of our generation. Access to and effective use of broadband affects the ability of individuals, industries and nations to grow, compete and succeed. If we can match the explosion in digital content with the smarter and more robust networks needed to get information to homes, businesses and schools, America stands a good chance of regaining its global leadership in broadband access, innovation and adoption.

Yet as new content proliferates, today’s high-speed connection could be tomorrow’s traffic jam. The strain on broadband capabilities and the looming data deluge is often called the Internet exaflood. “Exaflood” stems from the term exabyte, or 1.074 billion gigabytes. Two exabytes equal the total volume of information generated in 1999. The Internet currently handles one exabyte of data every hour. This mushrooming amalgamation of data is pushing the Internet to its limits.

We should not fear the exaflood, however. It is key to the innovative new services and applications that appear almost daily. Consider the growing number of universities that are making course lectures available online, often in real time. Or telemedicine programs that are transmitting medical images and linking patients with distant specialists for real-time consultations.

Preparing for the exaflood is critical to the nation’s success. The Internet infrastructure must be robust enough to handle all of the new data; this is often a challenge because the Internet is really thousands of privately owned, individual networks stitched together. It requires constant investment so that it will continue to grow and run smoothly. The private companies that maintain the Internet backbone are continually upgrading the network with new computers, routers, fiber optics and software to make sure data get where they need to go as fast as possible.

All sides agree that we need ongoing investment in content, massive upgrades of infrastructure and relentless innovation to handle the phenomenal growth in data traffic. We need advancements in how we build and operate networks, including new file compression technologies, upgraded traffic management software, better spam and virus filters, and new delivery platforms. And we need substantial investments in short-haul bandwidth through fiber to homes, broadband over power lines, satellites and fourth-generation wireless networks.

The formula for encouraging such extraordinary investments is clear: minimize tax and regulatory constraints and maximize competition. Policymakers across the nation have ample opportunity to implement this blueprint right away. They should pass common-sense legislation such as permanently extending the Internet tax moratorium, building broadband-ready public housing, and cutting depreciation schedules for network equipment and infrastructure.

The price of maintaining the status quo would be Internet gridlock that cripples new services, and our country would fall further behind other countries in broadband penetration.

The impending exaflood of data is cause for excitement. It took two centuries to fill the shelves of the Library of Congress with more than 57 million manuscripts, 29 million books and periodicals, 12 million photographs, and more. Now, the world generates an equivalent amount of digital information nearly 100 times each day. The explosion of digital information and proliferation of applications promises great things for our economy and our nation, as long as we are prepared.