Why broadband matters

During the past decade, our nation has witnessed a remarkable flood of Internet content, applications, and services that only a few years ago were surely unimaginable. This rapid advancement in technology has, of course, resulted in increased demand and investment in broadband, specifically wireless broadband, which is necessary to provide valuable mobility to consumers. Make no mistake, this tremendous progress could not be more critical – yet the   truth is that myriad challenges lie ahead for broadband in our nation if we seek to capture and fully integrate all that we can from this ever-evolving cultural and economic resource.  We in Congress must do more to cultivate greater availability and awareness of broadband.

Indeed, broadband is intricately woven into the fabric of our economy.  According to PriceWaterhouseCoopers, workers with broadband are 270 percent more productive than those using dial-up.  A 2006 Commerce Department report estimated broadband added 1 to 1.4 percent to a community’s employment growth rate and 0.5 to 1.2 percent to a community’s new business establishment growth rate, from 1998-2002.  In addition, a 2005 report by the research firm, Ovum, found mobile wireless broadband services generated productivity gains to the U.S. economy worth $28 billion per year and predicted that by 2016 , the value of the combined mobile wireless voice and broadband productivity gains will reach $427 billion annually.         

Despite all of the undeniable benefits, broadband remains an untapped resource for approximately 93 million Americans who do not use it.  In fact, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimates approximately 14 million Americans lack access to broadband.  As the world’s leader in technology, the U.S. globally ranks 15th in broadband adoption, 14th in broadband pricing, and 28th in broadband speeds. Considering the Internet was invented in the United States, this is not impressive. 

Even more disconcerting is that the U.S. has run an advanced technology deficit every month since June 2002, meaning we consistently import more advanced technology products than we export.  For 2009, our advanced technology deficit totaled an astounding $56 billion.  This weakens the nation’s 21st century high-tech job market, the long-term health of our economy, and our ability to remain competitive globally.

To help correct our course, the FCC, as directed by Congress, developed the National Broadband Plan. The plan is intended to be the blueprint to provide affordable, high-speed broadband to every American, as well as to regain our leadership in global broadband rankings and technological innovation.  More affordable, higher-speed broadband will foster greater advancements in countless fields – providing more efficient communication, collaboration, and connectivity.  A coordinated national strategy is long overdue and will help develop the proper framework to achieve the long-term telecommunications goals of this nation.

Alongside the explosive growth wireless broadband is expected to have over the next decade, we must also be aware this will have a profound impact on the availability of radio spectrum. That is why I’ve made spectrum policy reform a priority.  Last year, I joined Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in introducing S.649, the Radio Spectrum Inventory Act – legislation requiring a thorough inventory of radio spectrum managed by the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).  In order to meet rising spectrum demand, it is crucial decision makers at the FCC, NTIA, and in Congress have a more-detailed and up-to-date understanding of how spectrum is being used.

I’ve also written FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, encouraging the Commission to address pending spectrum proceedings as part of the National Broadband Plan to quickly roll out additional spectrum to meet the demand for commercial wireless broadband service.  I also intend to introduce comprehensive spectrum reform legislation to modernize policy and correct fundamental deficiencies in our nation’s radio spectrum management and coordination activities.  These steps will assist in developing the necessary foundation to meet future spectrum requirements for all users.

In addition to ensuring availability, we must also preserve accessibility.  It is essential the fundamental pillars of freedom and openness, which have been the bedrock of the Internet’s amazing expansion and global acceptance, should be protected.  I believe well-reasoned network neutrality policy that prohibits unreasonable discrimination and anticompetitive practices is vital. 

Extraordinary work has already been accomplished, but there is much more we must achieve.  I look forward to working with my colleagues and the administration to ensure all Americans have access to affordable, high-speed broadband and understand the many benefits it provides.

Snowe is a senior member of the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee and serves on its subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet.