Any architect will tell you that it’s impossible to build a house without a blueprint. This is true even more in telecom. Fortunately, the country just celebrated the fourth birthday of the National Broadband Plan, our blueprint for the future of broadband.
Often, government reports sit on shelves gathering dust. Thankfully, this one did not. Acting on a request from Congress, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) produced a report that was a vision for a connected future of universal broadband and a clarion call to move forward with innovation rather than letting America fall behind other countries.
The Plan started with a clear vision: every American deserves broadband. Not only that, every American needs broadband as it becomes increasingly critical for applying for jobs, learning new skills, communicating with others, and accessing our government. As the report said, “broadband can be our foundation for economic growth, job creation, global competitiveness and a better way of life.”
Over the last four years, there has been great progress. When the report was adopted, over 100 million Americans did not have broadband and 14 million Americans did not even have access to infrastructure that would enable broadband applications. Now, those numbers are significantly smaller, thanks to private sector investment and government’s continued focus. According to a White House report from last June, “about 91 percent of Americans have access to wired broadband speeds of at least 10Mbps downstream, and 81 percent of Americans have access to similarly fast mobile wireless broadband.”
In fact, that 2013 report notes that the definition of “broadband” has essentially shifted to speeds greater than 10 Mbps rather than the government’s historic definition of broadband beginning at 3 Mbps, which is good enough for one user at a time to load photos onto Facebook in a household, but not fast enough to download HD video from Netflix. Average delivered broadband speeds have doubled since 2009 to keep up with consumer needs.
This is only a beginning: President Obama’s recent State of the Union set a goal that 99% of students would have access to ultra-high speed broadband in schools and libraries over the next four years.
That kind of achievement only happens with massive levels of private sector investment, and the private sector has begun doing its part. Over the last four years, tens of billions of dollars of investment from the private sector have been directed towards expanding broadband access and increasing broadband speed. Investment in wireless broadband alone jumped over 40% between 2009 and 2012. In fact, two companies in this sector – AT&T and Verizon – were named “Investment Heroes” by the Progressive Policy Institute for their commitment to America’s telecommunications future. This is appropriate as the Plan stated that “broadband is the great infrastructure challenge of the early 21st century.”
To meet that challenge, government must encourage more private investment, while ensuring equitable access for every American to benefit from all that broadband has to offer. As the report stated, “the role of government is and should remain limited.”
As with many such efforts, this won’t happen without effort. The National Broadband Plan made clear that the nation would eventually have to make the transition from the aging telephone network to a system based on new broadband technologies. An FCC technology task force made the point even more clearly – that transition must happen over the course of this decade.
In fact, most consumers have already made this transition voluntarily. Less than one-third of residential consumers still use “plain old telephone service” at home (U-verse or Skype anyone?). The FCC has recently approved trials for these next-generation networks, which is a major step forward towards the all-broadband future foreshadowed in the Plan.
Four years after the National Broadband Plan, we have a vibrant, robust, cross-platform competitive system in which more and more Americans are gaining access to faster and faster broadband every day. There is more work to do, so let’s keep moving forward and not inhibit it through policies and regulations that would slow investment rather than increase it. If we want to be sure that every American has access to broadband, we should follow the vision set out in the National Broadband Plan for universal broadband, and move quickly toward the transition to modern high-speed broadband networks and services.