I started my own small telecommunications business in 2003. We're on the cutting edge of our industry, and I'm fiercely proud of the work that our team does – and I would be hard-pressed to count the ways in which our work would be possible without a robust public sector. Indeed, we're taking advantage of more than a century of public investments that helped make our work possible.
When people hear the word "telecommunications," they often think of the phone company, but a host of public and private ventures, both large and small, have helped build out the communications infrastructure that most take for granted today. One that keeps phone calls, pictures, video, and data flowing into and out of millions of smartphones, computers, and tablets – setting the stage for new economic opportunity for all and the rise of the knowledge worker.
Though consumers purchase their phone and Internet services through private companies like mine, many of the technologies that got America on the information superhighway were developed in government labs, including the Internet itself. While businesses have made significant improvements in these technologies, government funding and innovations helped get us where we are.
Much of the software underlying every last bit of our modern communications systems was developed in government-funded labs like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and NASA; the satellites that instantly transmit our phone calls were developed because of NASA's funding for communications satellites, starting under President Kennedy in 1962.
Furthermore, government plays another crucial role in the telecommunications world: referee.
If the government didn't set and enforce competition rules, large telecom companies would run roughshod over small businesses like mine and, frankly, put us out of business as soon as they could. FCC rules and Department of Justice antitrust actions (particularly United States v. AT&T in 1982) have ensured that we can keep our doors open and stay competitive, and that the jobs we've created don't disappear.
Regulatory frameworks created out of the Communications Act of 1934 (and its subsequent rewrite in 1996) have served to create a common set of rules for the industry and to shine a spotlight on its players. Telecommunications companies, as "common carriers," are to serve not only their own bottom lines, but also the public interest, much like the media and power industries are supposed to do. Each state, through its own public utility/service commission, also has a system in place to ensure the public interest is being met.
Through this combined framework, the nation achieved 100 percent penetration of the telephone network, and citizens in rural communities got fair and cost-effective services. Going forward, major efforts are underway to bring broadband and digital literacy to every corner of America – over $7 billion of stimulus funding has been invested through the Broadband Telecommunications Opportunities Project (BTOP) into hundreds of projects nationwide, and the impact on those communities is huge. None of this would have happened without public investment or government commitment.
I firmly believe that success in business is not just about making a quick profit, but also serving as a model and lever for positive change in our society, and as such, I'm a strong proponent of sustainable business models. I've been proud to be among those pushing the telecommunications industry to see itself in a different light, to become a force for social and environmental change. However, there is a lack of common commitment on this front. This is another area and opportunity for the public sector to help shape a new frontier for humanity.
Here again, businesses (big or small) simply cannot go it alone. To make further progress on issues such as lowering America's carbon output, bridging the digital divide, and inspiring what we call the "Access Economy" to flourish, our country will need investments from both the private and public sectors. "Getting government out of the way," as some argue we should do, just isn't an option.
We've come a long way since the days of the telegraph and rotary telephones, but there's still a lot of work to be done, discoveries to be made, and innovations to develop, all geared toward making telecommunications more sustainable and life better for all Americans.
In any debate about the role of government, we need to recognize and understand the critical nature of public investments in helping expand, strengthen, and maintain our 21st century communications infrastructure. If we want a cleaner, greener, better connected America tomorrow, we need to work together to invest in America today.
Bauer is president and co-founder of BetterWorld Telecom, co-project director for ConnectSpace.vi, and a board member of the American Sustainable Business Council.