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  • Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).

Broadband, Broadband, Broadband
January 24, 2013 - 10:45am

Susan Crawford's New York Times op-ed "How to Get America Online" states the case and makes a clear and convincing argument that the United States, beyond a shadow of doubt, must revisit, revise and advance its broadband policy.  

For over two years I have been on the Tompkins County Broadband Committee.  Created by the legislature, this committee has sought innumerable approaches to expanding Internet coverage throughout the county in which the city of Ithaca sits. To get an idea of the challenge, and with rough measure, one could take an old-fashioned compass, stick the pin on a map of the county in Center Ithaca, draw a five-mile circumference and demonstrate that beyond that circle lies miles and miles of town, hamlets and villages without Internet connectivity.  For a county that contains a university internationally renowned for engineering and computer science, it is an embarrassment to have the riches of high-speed network connection sit aside near-Appalachian social and economic conditions.  
Firsthand I can report that it is not for the want of trying that this embarrassment exists.  The committee consists of people from a wide span of experience and expertise to make broadband happen in those areas: the leaders of local I.S.P.s, individuals from various aspects of California startups and now-famous information technology companies, the director of the county library, and a number of town elected officials who work with country representatives and staff.  Together this group has invited the bigwig cable companies, Time Warner in particular, to speak to us, written grants and proposals, educated the legislature about the challenges, even fought some political battles insofar as this issue has been used rather than served individual political ends.  If it were a matter of magically turning will into fact, it would happen.  But since this issue assumes economic and political weight, it has not.
Susan Crawford outlines the reasons why in her analysis of how powerful communications companies, the incumbents, operate.  I could do no better to explain what I have witnessed firsthand than what she has said in this op-ed.  I can report than history is repeating itself.  The issues, roadblocks, needs and resistances were almost identical in the 1920s and 1930s about electricity.  And so from that lesson we might learn that it will take concerted federal government action to make something happen.  The market alone can and will not correct this problem.  Hence Crawford's three-point plan, carefully outlined in the essay.
Another article in the Times today reports that the new Congress is ever more earnest about creating jobs.  In an information economy, I cannot imagine a single other social policy effort that would better accomplish that goal with a face to the future of the United States.  Let's hope that Congress sees it that way too, vaults over the unproductive party politics that has paralyzed it for so many years now and gets down to the business of creating a national policy for broadband development that complements our democratic government, a global economy and culture worthy of this great country.


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