OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR

The Next National Infrastructure Push Must Be Powered by Broadband

It’s been more than 60 years since President Dwight D. Eisenhower, fresh from World War II Europe and its front-row seat to the efficiency of the German autobahn, vowed to create our nation’s interstate highway system. Now, President-elect Donald Trump is pledging to invest upwards of $1 trillion in a long-overdue upgrade of U.S. infrastructure. Both efforts are designed to create jobs and propel our economy and security forward. But one central input is different this time around: The modern world is not just connected by asphalt and airstrips and ports, but also by 1s and Os.

America’s broadband networks are no longer merely the vital link binding our businesses, communities and families, they also have become the indispensable welding tool required to safeguard, optimize and future-proof our nation’s infrastructure. Case in point: intelligent transportation. At the dawn of the age not only of the connected vehicle, but also the connected traffic light, road sign, pedestrian, bicycle, street and bridge, we begin a journey that will not only move our economy far more efficiently, but will open up the possibility that our children or grandchildren will live in a world without traffic fatalities.

Translating the Internet of Things into the Infrastructure of Things will take smart policy and even smarter public-private collaboration at all levels of government. But it need not slow the current momentum. Here are a few ideas to build on. Each comes from a central foundation: delivering clarity and parity—a bright green light—to all investors in our nation’s broadband infrastructure.

Clarity. Broadband companies have invested more in America’s infrastructure over the last two decades than any other sector of our economy – $1.5 trillion and counting. Yet these same companies in recent years have suffered a case of Washington whiplash. On one hand, heady (and wholly accurate) talk about broadband’s importance to all citizens. On the other, increasingly regressive policy decisions that undermine that potential and are widely credited with 2015’s decline in capital investment in U.S. broadband networks. We need to reverse this troubling trend by establishing policies that encourage investment in new and better broadband.

Parity. All players should compete on a level playing field. Yet telecommunications companies alone remain shackled to stale regulatory structures written in the rotary phone era or, at best, when the honk and screech of dial-up internet was the siren call of the future. These companies should be free to compete head-on with their cable and other rivals — free from dated, discriminatory rules.

Connecting everyone. We must keep our national commitment to a connected nation. As we did with electricity and water, highways and telephones, our nation must remain fully committed to seeing every citizen, including in rural areas that require public support has broadband service. This is an essential component of any effort to bring our nation together.

…And every “thing.” By 2020, Cisco predicts there will be more than 50 billion “things” connecting to the internet — powering connected homes, business and whole communities. This holds the potential to vastly improve virtually every yardstick of a vibrant, growing nation — from health care and public safety to education and energy conservation. Here, state and local governments have taken the early lead with smart cities and similar initiatives. They want to position their communities as tech-forward to attract jobs and innovation. This requires marrying ambitious visions to the often mundane work of making it happen — for example, streamlining rights of way and other permitting that encourages the arrival of next-generation networks.

A new administration and Congress present an opportune moment to take a fresh look at how we build for the future. This includes determining what from the past we must let go.

Many believe a major push on infrastructure holds out the greatest hope for meaningful, bipartisan progress. It is essential that this push include broadband. Shoring up aging brick-and-mortar infrastructure is essential to maintaining our country’s safety and economic health. But only by smartly connecting the dots between this largely analog effort and U.S. digital infrastructure can we achieve national outcomes that are truly transformative.

 

Jonathan Spalter is president and CEO of USTelecom, the nation’s leading trade association representing broadband service providers and suppliers for the telecom industry.

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