Broadband Reform: Jobs, Not Download Speeds

When it comes to broadband, we Americans are a bit like Maverick and Goose in Top Gun. We feel the need for speed—download speed, that is. We cringe at reports that show average U.S. download speeds lagging behind those of other countries. Representative Rick Boucher (D-Va.), chairman of the House Communications, Technology & Internet Subcommittee, says that within the next five years, 80% of Americans should have access to broadband speeds that are more than ten times what we have today.

And now Google (GOOG) has gotten into the faster-is-better game, announcing on Feb. 10 that it plans to create a broadband network with download speeds of as high as 1 gigabyte per second—about 100 times faster than those available today.

No one is denying that download speeds matter. But too heavy an emphasis on megabytes and gigabytes per second threatens to obscure a more pressing issue during a period of high unemployment: how broadband can be harnessed to create jobs.

Look Homeward, Congress

Regulators and lawmakers will have a chance to address the link between Internet access and the unemployment rate in the coming weeks as the Federal Communications Commission drafts its National Broadband Plan, a road map for increasing access to broadband, due to Congress in March.

Currently, about two-thirds of Americans subscribe to a broadband Internet service. A range of wired and wireless technologies—cable, DSL, WiMAX, and others—make broadband access possible at work, at home, and almost everywhere in between. As the government hashes out a plan for bring fast Web connections to the remaining one-third of the population, it must avoid getting bogged down in detailed discussions of how much better foreign broadband systems are than those in the U.S.—and instead keep a close eye on ways broadband access aids in job search, placement, and skills training.

In 2006, the Commerce Dept. found that broadband access enhances economic growth and performance, and that its economic impacts were both real and measurable. Broadband helps users go online with greater ease and helps eliminate job search and placement barriers. A high-speed connection makes it fast and easy for Web surfers to search public job databases—and even participate in online interviews with such video services as Skype. Broadband access gives displaced workers trying to make themselves more marketable a wealth of multimedia resources at their fingertips. They may enroll in specialized online courses and gain access to some of the best universities, including those that have posted all or most of their courses for free.

More Public Funding

Here are some other steps Uncle Sam must take. The Agriculture and Commerce Depts. are tasked with administering $7.2 billion in stimulus funding for broadband by Sept. 30. As they decide where to place the bulk of those funds, which remain unawarded, government officials should show preference to grant and loan applicants that can use broadband to reach displaced workers more quickly.

There also need to be more funds made available to, and a greater focus on, public institutions, such as libraries, community centers, job training facilities, and adult education sites, where broadband spending may have the largest impact on jobs.

Greater broadband competition, which the FCC recognizes is essential to promote more infrastructure development and more varied pricing, also will be helpful. So, too, will be more efficient use of our spectrum resources, particularly those that have been controlled by colleges, schools, and other educational institutions for decades. Those airwaves can be better deployed to deliver high-speed wireless broadband services or leased to private-sector companies offering them.

An effective national job recovery program needs to account for the positive role that broadband can play. Anyone looking for a job, updating job skills, or growing a business needs access to broadband technologies that are proven and plentiful, available in a variety of wired and wireless flavors. Let's make sure that broadband becomes more widespread, more quickly, among our working population.

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