(NNPA) - This summer, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski described universal broadband Internet access as this generation's infrastructure challenge. He compared it to building our nation's railroads and highways and electrical grid. The commission has been working since that time to create a National Broadband Plan, as mandated by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Bringing broadband to all Americans will strengthen our economy and our communities. Deploying broadband creates new American jobs that revitalize our communities. A study by the Brookings Institution revealed that for every 1 percent increase in broadband penetration in a state the employment rate rises 0.2 to 0.3 percent per year. The broadband and communications sector created nearly half of all new American jobs in 2008.
Broadband improves the lives of those who adopt it. Broadband technology connects them with jobs, education, and opportunities for civic participation. More than two-thirds of Americans think broadband is important to find out what is going on in their communities, according to a study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.
Broadband access also put people in touch with online medical resources that can save $670 per household per year in health care costs. That is 25 percent of the median American family's total out-of-pocket costs for health care, according to the Benton Foundation.
Unfortunately, too many Americans — especially Americans of color — have yet to experience the benefits of broadband technology. They are on the wrong side of what's known as the digital divide. They live, work, and go to school in poor urban neighborhoods or low-income rural areas where broadband Internet access is either unavailable or prohibitively expensive. And they need broadband if they want to remain competitive with people who are already using broadband Internet access to apply for jobs, do homework, find out about colleges, apply for small business loans, talk with their doctors, study the positions of candidates for public office, and request government services that today are likely to be available only online.
President Obama and Congress have made universal broadband access a priority, and we should applaud them for it. A carefully crafted National Broadband Plan could clear the way for private investment to expand the reach of broadband and make it available — and affordable — in places it hasn't yet reached. A recent study by Kevin Hassett and Robert Shapiro shows that the digital divide can be closed much sooner if every part of the Internet ecosystem works toward the goal of 100 percent broadband.
Universal broadband will require significant financial investments. The FCC recently estimated that it could cost as much as $350 billion to build out high-speed fiber broadband throughout the United States. The private sector appears ready to continue their investment into building bigger and faster networks. In the past two years, the nearly 1,400 U.S. broadband service providers have invested roughly $120 billion in modern communications networks, according to a study byEmpiris. That investment is greater than the federal investment in the U.S. transportation infrastructure during the same period.
But new government rules that would force companies to charge consumers more for service rather than charging other big companies to recoup investment could derail the entire process, widen the digital divide, and leave some communities further behind. So-called network neutrality regulations could keep America from achieving universal broadband access by increasing consumer prices among consumers least able to afford it but who are in greatest need of broadband access.
That in turn could make it harder to bring more lower income Americans online and put them in touch with the critical jobs, healthcare, education and other resources they so desperately need. The last thing we need is for Americans to have to pay higher monthly broadband bills because some big companies want to keep their cost of doing business low. At a time when the FCC is working to get more Americans connected, leaving consumers to foot the entire bill for more broadband deployment would be counterproductive.
If Genachowski truly believes that universal broadband deployment is this generation's infrastructure challenge, his commission should not put up roadblocks that could stand in the way. Broadband technology changes the way Americans work, communicate, and live while revitalizing communities and strengthening the economy. Now is the time to expand broadband access; not create regulations that will slow its spread.
Danny Bakewell Sr. is publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel and chairman of the National Newspaper Publishers Association.