Government Technology

Commentary: Universities Offer Fix for Obama's Flawed Broadband Plan

April 30, 2009 By

"The Obama administration and the Congress want to stimulate broadband development, but the rules for doing so are not clear and won't be until a good chunk of this stimulus funding has already been spent." -- John Eger (pictured)

Last week, 200 universities nationwide offered a national strategy to the Obama Administration "as a first step in realizing (his) vision bringing the benefits of broadband technology to all Americans."

The plan was offered to NTIA -- The National Telecommunications and Information Administration -- which has $4.7 billion to help build our national information infrastructure as part of the so-called stimulus plan passed by the Congress earlier this year.

In reality the Congress authorized $7.2 billion for NTIA and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to provide broadband to "unserved communities. Neither Congress nor the administration has given any clear definition of the areas qualified as "unserved."

Further complicating matters, the Congress and the Administration asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to create a "comprehensive plan mapping specific policies to bring broadband to the nation." The FCC is expected to draw up a plan to return to the Congress by February 2010.

FCC acting chairman Michael Copps in announcing the inquiry said, " this is a huge deal -- broadband is the central infrastructure challenge of the early 21st Century" and acknowledged that at present the U.S. isn't even in the top 10 of countries around the world deploying broadband technology.

Clearly there is much to be done.

Despite the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the first major piece of telecommunications reform legislation passed by the Congress in over 50 years, the U.S. seems to be slipping behind many nations of the world not only in deploying broadband, but in bringing efficient, affordable communications to all Americans, particularly broadband Internet services to the nation.

The funding however calls for NTIA and the U.S.D.A. to make the first set of grants from April to June of this year and to get all the money into the marketplace by the end of September next year. Alas, this is the problem. The Obama administration and the Congress want to stimulate broadband development, but the rules for doing so are not clear and won't be until a good chunk of this stimulus funding has already been spent.

Thus, the university solution.

Together with a white paper called Unleashing Waves of Innovation: Transformative Broadband for America's Future, April 18, 2009 the filing makes clear that any broadband strategy "should begin with America's colleges and universities, community colleges, K-12 schools, public libraries, hospitals, clinics and the state regional and national education networks"

Universities have always served their communities by providing an educated workforce, contributing to the knowledge base of a community through its consulting work to government and business, and generally by being part of the social fabric of a community. Increasingly however, universities in urban and metropolitan settings are being looked to for unique leadership, particularly as communities make the transition from a postindustrial economy and society to a new uncertain age in the wake of globalization.

Some universities have already started more actively to engage their communities in meaningful ways by serving on various local boards and commissions and, significantly, creating new research parks and centers involving the business community. Now, however, in the wake of a basic shift in the structure of the world economy, cities across America are looking to their universities to be principal allies and agents of change.

This proposal now in the hands of the Obama administration, may be just the vehicle America needs to create not only a badly needed broadband initiative, but a metropolitan information strategy as well.

Not surprisingly, this strategy is consistent with what is being developed by nations around the world that recognize that having a broadband network infrastructure -- not unlike water, power and telephone service of an earlier era -- is a public necessity; and that to provide affordable, accessible service to a region requires something akin to a community-wide grid, and a community-wide effort which the Universities are most capable of leading.

Only a plan of this depth, breadth and scope will accomplish our national goals.

Eger, Van Deerlin endowed chair of communications and public policy in the School of Journalism and Media Studies at San Diego State University was telecommunications advisor to Presidents Nixon and Ford.

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