Obama's Broadband Roadmap

In a Saturday morning YouTube
address, President-elect Barack Obama gave the nation a first glimpse
at his administration's stimulus plan - and connecting everyone to the
Internet was a main route on his roadmap to economic recovery.

"Here, in the country that invented the Internet, every child should
have the chance to get online, and they'll get that chance when I'm
President," he said. "Because that's how we'll strengthen America's
competitiveness in the world."

That closing the digital divide ranks so highly on Obama's economic agenda might come as a surprise to some.

Obama: "Every child should have a chance to get online"

But
like rural electrification and Interstate highway systems in the 20th
century, Internet connectivity should be thought of as infrastructure
that will light the way to 21st-century prosperity.

And it is not merely a matter of national pride. Getting more
people connected is an issue with life-or-death consequences. Just 24
hours before Obama's speech, the U.S. Labor Department released figures
showing an alarming unemployment rate of 6.7 percent. More than 533,000 jobs were lost November alone -- the worst job loss in 34 years.

The Internet could prove to be our path to economic salvation. A 2007 study
by the Brookings Institution and MIT found that a one-digit increase in
U.S. per-capita broadband penetration equates to an additional American
300,000 jobs. If our broadband penetration were as high as a country
like Denmark, for example, we could expect more than 3 million
additional jobs in America.

Making Good

In making this pledge to connect everyone, Obama
has bravely stepped into an Internet void left by his predecessor. Over
the past eight years, the United States has fallen from fourth to 15th in the world
in terms of high-speed Internet adoption. More than 40 percent of
American homes are not connected to high-speed Internet services.

The Bush administration has been in the habit of making high-minded promises
about the Internet while delivering massive handouts to the cable and
phone giants who seem more interested in padding profits than building
out connections to those who need them most.

In his Saturday address, Obama promised to install computers in
classrooms and extend high-speed Internet to underserved areas. These
goals echo those expressed by candidate Obama on the trail in 2008 and
on his transition Web site www.change.gov.

President Bush made a similar sounding pledge in 2004 without delivering. The challenge for Obama -- and all of us -- is to dig into the details and really get the work done.

Lighting the Way

At Free Press, we have some ideas. Our policy shop just released a guide to media reform for the new administration and Congress, which can help forge a path to a better Internet.

The document calls upon the next Federal Communications Commission
to set new speed standards for broadband; collect meaningful data on
deployment; transition the Universal Service Fund toward digital
infrastructure; and open networks to stimulate broadband competition.

Reforming the ways we allocate spectrum for Internet use is also a
centerpiece. New ideas about sharing vacant airwaves and prying open
existing networks are a top job. With more Americans using cell phones
than the Internet, we need to make sure that our evolving mobile
experience includes an open Internet as much as possible.

The Free Press document urges the new administration to lay the
groundwork in Congress for new telecommunications law that recognizes
the growing convergence of communications platforms.

"The existing statutes were designed for a bygone era -- when
different services and technologies had different regulatory
frameworks," it states. "Now we are in the era ... where virtually all
media and communications move on the same digital networks. The law
must catch up with technology and the market."

Internet for Everyone

Obama seems to get it more than his predecessor, and his screen-side chat strikes a hopeful note.

Sadly, there is still a huge mass of Americans who couldn't get online to hear it.

On the same day of Obama's YouTube pledge, InternetforEveryone.org
-- a broad-based initiative to connect every American to a fast, open
and affordable Internet -- had its first interactive town hall meeting
to address this problem.

Hundreds gathered in Los Angeles to discuss ways to close the
digital divide. This discussion will be combined with feedback from
upcoming town hall meetings and delivered to the Obama administration
and Congress as a tangible plan of action.

Obama is going to need to listen to those beyond the Beltway to best build a better Internet for everyone.

His pledge gives us the chance to have a long overdue public
conversation about what the future of the Internet should look like.
This is where the rubber meets the road on the information superhighway
-- and it's Obama's best chance to deliver on his promises of change
for millions.