Our new Sputnik moment

As America falls further behind in the world on broadband, we must seize upon the lessons of one chilly night 50 years ago tomorrow — Oct. 4, 1957. As a small beeping sphere — dubbed Sputnik — hurtled quietly through space, its significance reverberated loudly throughout America’s living rooms, boardrooms, and the halls of Congress. On that one night, 50 years ago this week, America looked up into the skies and saw our scientific leadership in the world fall from first to second. That singular event made it un-mistakenly clear that we had lost our technological superiority, and necessitated an unprecedented, national effort to retake our lead. That night is remembered forever as “Sputnik Night.”

The initial American response to Sputnik was panic. Sputnik represented not only a symbol of Soviet technological superiority, but also a terrifying military threat. The “space race” had begun.

In response, Americans did what we do best. We rallied the nation’s resources around a comprehensive strategy to regain our technological leadership. The post-Sputnik sense of urgency powered American innovation for decades, igniting the growth of the country’s infant semiconductor and computer industries, helping us lay foot to the moon, and discover the foundational technologies for the Internet. It also helped launch a satellite communication revolution that would ultimately prove critical for our ability to transmit phone calls, to transmit television, and to extend communication’s reach into the far corners of the country.  These critical policy responses helped America unleash unprecedented technological advances that built the world’s most vibrant economy — indeed we are still benefiting today from this farsighted leadership.

But today we have a new Sputnik. And we must confront this challenge with the same sense of urgency concerning the critical technology of our day.

Broadband is now, undeniably, the essential communications medium of the 21st century. Recognizing its importance, in 2004 President Bush set an ambitious and critical national goal of achieving universal, affordable broadband access by 2007. Experts agree that universal broadband availability would not only unleash an estimated $500 billion in economic growth and more than 1.2 million high-wage jobs, but it could help bridge the digital divide and unleash a new wave of innovations, transforming almost every aspect of our lives.

Yet just months from the end of 2007, we appear to be far from achieving the president’s broadband goal and critically behind in the technology that is driving economies around the world. America hasn’t just slipped to second place; we have slipped from first to fourth to 15th among industrialized nations in broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants.
Broadband is our generation’s Sputnik moment. Although not visible in the night’s sky, it is visible in report after report of broadband rankings. Sputnik forced us to ask how we can regain our lead in outer space. Today we must urgently ask how to regain our lead in cyberspace.

The U.S. pays a heavy competitive cost for not addressing our broadband shortcomings. Our businesses pay a competitive price. Our children will pay when they have to compete with others from around the globe. Our personal well-being suffers when we don’t have the latest productivity improving technologies that are critical to our ability to raise standards of living. In fact by one estimate, $1 trillion could be lost over the next decade due to constraints on broadband development.

Our nation’s commitment to ubiquitous and affordable communications has never been more important than now. Like putting a man on the moon, making broadband as common as telephone service must be key goals in the 21st century. We are only on the threshold of an information technology revolution if we preserve and strengthen our guarantee of universal, affordable communication access for all Americans.

So what kind of effort does it take today? We must 1) devise a comprehensive, national, digital strategy, 2) create a Broadband Innovation Fund that invests in harnessing the power of broadband and information technology to boost education, reduce health care costs, encourage telecommuting, reduce greenhouse emissions, transform our emergency communication infrastructure, improve homeland security, and raise standards of living, and 3) extend broadband’s reach to those who can benefit most. And like 50 years ago, we must also regain our leadership in research, science and technology education.

Benton is chairman and CEO of the Evanston, Ill.-based Benton Foundation, whose mission is to articulate a public interest vision for the digital age and to demonstrate the value of communications for solving social problems.