Almost every great public initiative in America's history, the electrification of rural communities, the creation of the interstate highway system or the 60s-era mission to the moon, started with a powerful vision and the political leadership to get it done.
We need both as we face a challenge to reawaken our democracy and drive economic growth in a world where America's greatest commodity is its people.
This challenge, of course, is delivering high-speed Internet access to everyone.
And it's no small lift as we have already dug ourselves a hole. Access to broadband today is held in the grip of the cable and phone cartel. This duopoly controls access for more than 98 percent of online American homes. And it's the main reason why American pay far more for much slower speeds than what's available in the rest of the developed world.
Sharing the Broadband Dividend
It has put us at a tremendous disadvantage -- one that has been widely documented. But what's alarming is new information about the demographics of access -- the so-called "digital divide." According to new analysis by Free Press (my employer), only 35 percent of U.S. homes with less than $50,000 in annual income have a high-speed Internet connection.
And the broadband dividend is not paying out equally. Only 40 percent of racial and ethnic minority households in the United States have access to broadband, while 55 percent of non-Hispanic white households are connected.
"The digital divide is alive and well," Van Jones, the founder of Green For All, said during yesterday's launch of InternetforEveryone.org -- a new initiative to solve America's gaping broadband access problems. "There's a whole section of people who have not even caught up to where we are now and are in grave danger of being left behind."
According to Jones, this has dire consequences for one's ability to vote, to be a part of the economy and, even, to survive - he mentioned the deaths of migrant farm workers, who didn't receive Web-based emergency notices in time to escape last year's wildfires in California.
Like Hot Water
"Why Internet for all? I think Internet access is required for full participation in society today. Maybe it's not as basic as water, but it's definitely as basic as hot water," Robin Chase, the founder of Zipcar, said.
According to Chase, Internet access is fundamental to maintaining a high quality of life and for addressing such pressing social problems as America's energy dependency.
Getting Beyond Rhetoric
Returning to the top of international rankings would translate into millions of new jobs and hundreds of billions of dollars in increased economic activity for the United States.
For good reason, other developed countries have enacted comprehensive national plans to connect more of their citizens to a fast, affordable and open Internet. The U.S. doesn't have a plan or the leadership to get it done.
We do have national broadband rhetoric, though. In 2004, President Bush pledged "to have a universal, affordable access for broadband technology by the year 2007."
As if on cue, last year, Mr. Bush's chief Internet officer, John Kneuer, declared "mission accomplished" -- that all the international surveys were misleading and that the "free market" had ensured that Americans across the country enjoy real choice in high-speed Internet access.
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What he and his White House compatriots refuse to acknowledge, though, is that a free market approach for Internet services in the U.S. is a chimera. The only hand in play here belongs to the phone and cable duopoly and a government that's been held in their thrall for too long.
The real solution is a little more nuanced.
Neanderthals and the Three Legged Stool
During the launch of InternetforEveryone.org, FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein described himself as a "frustrated policymaker" in Washington. "At the FCC I have a stack of proposals on my desk about a national broadband policy," he said. "What we're lacking is the leadership to actually implement those policies."
Adelstein looks at a successful broadband plan as a three-legged stool:
"You have businesses, who will invest and drive deployment, you have the government on all levels hopefully working in concert, and then you have the public both directly involved and through public interest groups like this coalition."
"This is social infrastructure," Professor Larry Lessig said:
"What's bizarre about where we are in the history of building infrastructure is that this is the first time we have tried to undertake the building of fundamental social infrastructure against the background of a Neanderthal philosophy, which is that you don't need government to do anything.
"That Neanderthal philosophy has governed for about the last eight years, and it has allowed us to slide from a leader in this field to an abysmal position. And it's about time when people recognize that of course the private sector has a role, a central role, maybe the most important role, but it's never enough.
Making it Happen
InternetforEveryone.org is bringing together public interest and for-profit institutions to raise public awareness of the digital divide and spark the political will to address this massive problem.
Closing the broadband digital divide should have been a real national priority for the past eight years. We can't afford NOT to make it a priority for the next eight. While our status as world technology leader went into free fall, Congress sat on the sidelines and the White House ducked and dodged.
There's a reason for that. Getting everyone connected is a political issue at its core. The policy process has been dominated thus far by the broadband incumbents and their well-heeled lobbyists. These companies prefer our lagging Internet status quo to public involvement, choice and real innovation.
And the community that uses the Internet is only now beginning to get organized to guide the debates that will shape its future. We clearly need to do more organizing with the tens of millions of people in communities that can't access the Web.
Getting us back on top will require a national broadband framework that is supported by those beyond the Beltway -- who stand to gain the most from a national broadband agenda that promotes access, choice, openness and innovation. And we need bold leadership willing to reject the conventional political wisdom and explore real solutions.
As the Campaign Director for Free Press and SavetheInternet.com, Karr oversees campaigns on public broadcasting and noncommercial media, fake news and propaganda, journalism in crisis, and the future of the Internet.
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