History Repeats: The Great Depression, Broadband and Our National Prominence

About 80 years ago our country experienced what is still considered the worst economic period in our history – the Great Depression. A number of things got us out of that mess – World War II being a notable yet unfortunate economic engine. 

However, the country was already experiencing a mild turn-around before the first bombs were dropped on Pearl Harbor, largely due to huge national infrastructure projects to improve the country, create jobs, and revive the economy. Programs such as the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Public Works Administration built roads, bridges, buildings, dams and hydroelectric power plants.

It’s true that these programs created jobs which helped pull us out of the immediate economic crisis but, in a broader sense, they were undertaken to secure the future of our nation.  America emerged from the Great Depression and World War II as the world's economic powerhouse which brought unprecedented growth and prosperity through the 1950’s and 60’s.

Why the short history lesson? Because: Here we go again.

Once again we’ve weathered the worst economic crisis since that time.  Now we have another infrastructure project to undertake - national broadband access.

There has been an ongoing debate this year between the Federal Communications Commission, Congress, and private enterprise about the National Broadband Access Plan proposed by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. At the center of the debate is federal funding for the plan and the potential clash between government intervention and free enterprise.

That aside, here is what we know about our nation’s broadband access:

  • Almost a third of all Americans do not have broadband at home, including 13 million children.
  • 14 million Americans can’t even obtain broadband where they live.
  • An Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (www.itif.org) study measuring 40 industrialized countries placed the U.S. sixth in the world on ability to innovate and compete.
  • The same study ranked the U.S. 40th out of 40 countries in rate of change in capacity for innovation – or the ability to even support innovative technology and business.

Once again the U.S. must embark on a massive infrastructure project to regain our position as the world leader for innovation, business, and technology to fuel economic growth for the next few decades. Genachowski, the FCC Chair, argues that people who lack fast Internet connectivity have fewer economic opportunities. He also says the entire nation needs faster access in order to remain competitive with other countries for digital-age jobs and investment.

A national broadband infrastructure plan will help lead the nation into the 21st century on several fronts, including:

Innovation - Having a world-class broadband infrastructure will make the United States the largest market for high-speed Internet, drawing innovators from around the world to launch new technologies in our country.

Business – Broadband provides the ability to share increasing amounts of information at greater speeds, increasing productivity and facilitating interstate commerce. According to the FCC, the country’s Information and Communications Technology sector represents about one-sixth of the U.S. economy and an even greater percentage of GDP growth. A 10 percent increase in broadband penetration corresponds to a 1.2-1.5 point increase in GDP.

Education – According to Genachowski, one study found that low-income children who use the Internet more at home had higher GPAs and standardized test scores than children who use it less. Digital literacy goes beyond learning about technology - it teaches kids to think analytically, critically and creatively so that they can assess relevant, reliable information. Better broadband capacity for libraries and community centers will also help families become digitally literate.

Healthcare - A national broadband plan can dramatically improve the collection, presentation and exchange of health care information and provide clinicians and consumers the tools to transform care. Broadband enables efficient exchange of patient and treatment information by allowing providers to access patients’ electronic health records from multiple locations, removing geography and time as barriers to care and enabling video consultation and remote patient monitoring.

It’s essential for the FCC, the Federal Government, and private enterprise (namely communication service providers such as telecom, cable, and wireless companies) to work together in order to regain our standing as a world leader in innovation and technology. Things aren't nearly as bad now as they were in the 1930’s – and ranking 40th out of 40 industrialized countries just won’t cut it.