November 5, 2012 – In the lead-up to the 2008 presidential election four years ago, then-candidate Barack Obama repeatedly raised the importance of “expanding broadband lines across America” as part of the economic stimulus plan that become the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
During the first year of his administration, many parties honed in on an effort to help stimulate a greater capacity for “middle mile” investments in broadband infrastructure, along with efforts to spur internet adoption and usage, and to systematically map and coordinate broadband assets.
All told, approximately $7 billion – or about 1 percent – of the Recovery Act funding went to stimulate broadband activities.
Even more important than the funding, however, was to have an Executive branch focus on broadband as a policy lever – something that had been lacking in the Bush administration.
President Obama’s election in 2008 coincided with an initiative, undertaken by many individuals that were both Republican and Democratic, to focus on the power of high-speed internet through a “call to action for a national broadband strategy.” This effort, the U.S. Broadband Coalition, contributed to the National Broadband Plan that was subsequently developed by the Federal Communications Commission.
Released in March 2010, the National Broadband Plan is an extraordinary document. It was comprehensive in its inventory of broadband resources. It had the most current public broadband data current available at the time of its publication. It offered ambitious, yet reachable, goals. It did so without being fiscally imprudent. And yet it set into motion comprehensive new opportunities for ensuring that the nation has broadband widely available and well-used.
In addition to the National Broadband Plan, the broadband data now available through the National Broadband Map represents a sea-change versus our understanding of high-speed internet communication, circa 2008. The September Broadband Breakfast Club, “Measuring Broadband Performance: What Have We Learned in Four Years?” highlighted this history.
Now that the federal government and states around the country have begun collecting broadband data in richer detail than ever before, the real power should come in what happens next: leveraging data and maps to promote broadband access and to maximize its use.
One small illustration of this benefit: the FCC has already begun using these tools as part of the reforms of the Universal Service Fund. This $8.1 billion annual fund offer subsidies for a range of telecommunications services designed to ensure universal access to communications.
Nearly one year ago, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and the rest of the five-member commission announced major changes to the USF. The FCC created a Connect America Fund and the Mobility Fund. The FCC has already begun Phase I of each of these initiatives, and these were discussed at the October 2012 Broadband Breakfast Club.
We’ve long known that America needs better broadband. Step one in achieving that capability has always been to collect a world-class inventory of the availability of high-speed internet. The Obama Administration has achieved that goal.
Whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney wins the presidential election contest tomorrow, no one expects a repeat of the funding made available by the Recovery Act. But at the same time, no one expects that the Universal Service Fund will be diminished.
The past four years have already brought substantial changes in America’s broadband capabilities. These data-driven tools are now available to everyone. And that’s why the next administration – whether a second term for Obama or for a Romney administration – will continue to unfold the next chapter of high-speed internet in America.
Drew Clark is the Chairman of the Broadband Breakfast Club, the premier Washington forum advancing the conversation around broadband technology and internet policy. You can find him on Google+ and Twitter. He founded BroadbandCensus.com, and he brings experts and practitioners together to advance Better Broadband, Better Lives. He’s doing that now as Executive Director for Broadband Illinois, based in Abraham Lincoln’s Springfield.