by Bruce Mehlman and Larry Irving

Judging by the BusinessWeek best sellers this summer, one might conclude that our nation is in serious trouble. Fareed Zakaria describes a “post-American world,” Thomas Friedman explains why we desperately “need a green revolution,” and Regina Hertzlinger wonders: “Who killed health care?” Certainly, the U.S. faces unprecedented challenges maintaining its global leadership in a world that is increasingly educated, innovative, and able. Not surprisingly, American competitiveness is front and center on the campaign trail.

But while the list of maladies allegedly ailing our nation is long and well-established—addiction to foreign oil, uneven educational attainment, excessive health-care costs, insufficient personal savings, to name a few—one shortcoming gets shorter shrift than the rest: lack of bandwidth. And that’s a shame, because this may be the most easily remedied.

Bandwidth refers to broadband: high-speed Internet access. Broadband access has become vital to life and commerce in America. Individuals, businesses, government agencies, health-care providers, and educational institutions all rely on broadband access for communicating and conducting business.

Access For All

The hottest debate in high tech these days is whether America is on track, or behind, in broadband deployment and adoption, and what can be done to widen broadband’s reach and beneficiaries. The next President—whether Barack Obama or John McCain—has an extraordinary opportunity to ensure that all Americans have affordable access to broadband and the skills and knowledge to benefit from it. This must start with development of a national broadband strategy, a coherent road map of policies and goals that complement and accelerate efforts in the marketplace to achieve universal adoption of affordable high-speed Internet connections.

The private sector has made great progress in creating and deploying ever-faster networks. And competitive markets must continue to lead. But while we have seen solid deployment and adoption of broadband in America so far, most would acknowledge that the U.S. still has a long way to go to achieve our clear goal: universal availability and adoption of truly high-speed access.

Government has an important role here, irrespective of people’s political philosophy. Conservatives correctly observe that we treat telecom like a luxury, tax it like a sin, regulate it like a utility, and subsidize uncompetitive players and anachronistic technologies. Tax policies discourage broadband adoption, regulatory policies create barriers to investment, and government actions limit competitive opportunities for new entrants and the dissemination of information in the marketplace.

Where Markets Fail

Progressives note that most gaps in broadband deployment and adoption are defined by demographic and geographic factors that reflect market failures—an area where government can make a real difference. From promoting digital literacy to helping low-income consumers, to encouraging innovative applications in health care, energy efficiency, or telework, government can actually help. And policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels have indeed tried various means to encourage a more rapid rollout of broadband in rural areas.

Unfortunately, government efforts to expand the reach and impact of broadband have all too often been stymied by partisan politics or ideological warfare. Good laws with broad support have been held up as policymakers debated more controversial questions that merit further consideration, and nothing has gotten done. Likewise, tactical initiatives by individual government agencies have too often been isolated and disconnected from a broader strategy and unmatched by complementary actions by other agencies. These failures can be remedied.

To that end, the Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA) on July 30 is announcing the formation of what it’s calling a group of Broadband Ambassadors, which include executives of TiVo (TIVO), Ciena (CIEN), and VeriSign (VRSN), as well as representatives of such nongovernment organizations as ConnectedNation and the Progress & Freedom Foundation. The group will help IIA raise awareness of the need for universal broadband availability. IIA is also calling on the next Administration to do its part:

– Within its first 100 days, the next Administration should convene a bipartisan and inclusive group of political and economic leaders to offer recommendations for a national broadband strategy. By July 31, 2009, the Administration should make clear how it intends to promote the investment and competition needed to get true broadband to all Americans within two years.

– Such a strategy should include actions by federal or state governments and recommendations for the private sector or Internet users. Elements of this strategy should be offered individually rather than as a broad, package deal, lest popular and promising ideas get held hostage to controversial measures that need more debate and analysis.

– The strategy must include significant efforts to expand the supply (and speed) of Internet connections, encouraging the more than $100 billion of private investment that Nemertes Research estimates is needed to accommodate exponentially expanding Web traffic. The supply side can be enhanced by improving information in the marketplace, promoting competition across multiple platforms, encouraging investment in next-generation technologies, and addressing market failures.

– At the same time, a national broadband strategy must offer policies that address barriers to broadband demand, such as digital illiteracy, unaggregated demand, and illicit online activities. Usage will continue to lag availability until the disconnected perceive real value, with applications that help all Americans, and especially lower-income Americans, solve everyday challenges.

The U.S. can compete and thrive in the 21st century global economy, building a more inclusive and enduring prosperity. Yet to succeed, we must take appropriate steps now to ensure that we are prepared as a country to capitalize on the great economic, cultural, and social opportunities presented by the broadband platform. The benefits are undeniable and compelling. Our nation’s greatest days are not behind it. It is time to act.

Originally published at Business Week