Where is the Internet equivalent of the Interstate Highway System?

It’s 1955. You want to ship something from Minneapolis to Chicago and need to head down Highway 12 in your panel truck — a two lane, quite dangerous road — and 12-14 hours later it arrives…provided there weren’t traffic jams, it was Spring and the National Guard was traveling that same road with a convoy or you shipped it by railroad and it took days. That same trip is made fifty years later in 2005 and it takes 7 hours in relative safety and ease — Spring convoy or not — and you’ve shipped that something in one of many dozens of methods (e.g., UPS, FedEx, Yellow Freight, Joe’s Trucking).

President Dwight Eisenhower admired Germany’s autobahn and recognized its importance as a strategic resource for quickly moving the military around the country — and its enabling capability to safely and rapidly move mass around Germany without distrupting traffic flow (and the economy). “Ike” went on to be the visionary behind the creation of our interstate highway system.

No one can argue how the interstate has revolutionized moving goods and people around the massive geography that comprises the United States. The railroad essentially was marginalized because trucking was so much more efficient in moving goods around due to this nationwide highway system. Trucks could now bring materials right to their destinations — and businesses no longer needed to be located as close as possible to railroad tracks in order to be viable.

President Bush has paid seeming lip service to a technology agenda that purports to ensure broadband is available throughout our nation.  President has called for universal, affordable access for broadband technology by the year 2007 and wants to make sure we give Americans plenty of technology choices when it comes to purchasing broadband. Broadband technology will enhance our Nation’s economic competitiveness and will help improve education and health care for all Americans.” To me, this smacks of some guy thinking that this internet thingy is cool and access should be there for everyone. What I’ve seen to date is that the Bush Administration’s view of internet infrastructure is akin to having a vision of building Route 66 with zero understanding that this sort of vision guarantees innovation will not be sparked nor the status quo of current business models (like big media, software, commerce, telephony, etc.) be disrupted.

Is broadband speed purposely being allowed to be slow to protect the status quo?  What is our broadband status right now and what is our current Administration (and, I must point out, my own State of Minnesota) doing to “be the cup of gasoline on the smoldering fire of innovation” by providing true broadband?

The U.S. is currently 12th in the world in broadband penetration. From Foreign Affairs:

Inthe first three years of the Bush administration, the United States dropped from 4th to 13th place in global rankings of broadband Internet usage. Today, most U.S. homes can access only “basic” broadband, among the slowest, most expensive, and least reliable in the developed world, and the United States has fallen even further behind in mobile-phone-based Internet access. The lag is arguably the result of the Bush administration’s failure to make a priority of developing these networks. In fact, the United States is the only industrialized state without an explicit national policy for promoting broadband.

From Free Press (from the people who publish Consumer Reports):

Despite a rosy picture painted by the Federal Communications Commission, America’s access to affordable, high-speed Internet lags far behind the rest of the digital world. A new report released today by Free Press, the Consumer Federation of America and Consumers Union shows that a recent FCC assessment of broadband Internet access is misleading and glosses over serious problems behind an ever-widening digital divide.

So I see little evidence that our Federal government is doing anything to foster true broadband adoption or anything even remotely close to the vision of President Eisenhower. Lip service is being paid to broadband and to innovation. Cup of gasoline on the fire of innovation? More like cold water.

My current State government is focused on biotech and other innovation, but apparently isn’t moving fast enough to enable our struggling, former mining hub (dubbed the “Iron Range”).  Obviously understanding how vitally important incredibly fast internet broadband will be to the future of commerce in the world, the “rangers” are pursuing a future agenda that will ensure that region of our State thrives:

A group of small towns in northeastern Minnesota is considering a multi-municipal fiber project similar to Utah’s Utopia project. If pursued, the effort could be an early test of the repeatability of the Utopia model.

Dynamic City, the same consulting firm that helped create Utah’s 11-city public wholesale fiber-to-the-premises network, is conducting a feasibility study for a group of about 15 towns in Minnesota’s so-called “Iron Range,” a seven-county territory in the state’s northeast corner that was historically home to a now-faded mining industry.

However, our Governor, Tim Pawlenty, is 100% on-the-money with this articulated vision that I, quite frankly, had hoped would be one fostered by our national leadership:

Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty announced today that his administration endorses the vision and principles for universal deployment and use of high-speed next generation broadband proposed by a diverse group of telecommunications industry, business, government and rural community leaders.

“Minnesota is committed to encouraging the necessary investment to become a world leader in the universal deployment and use of high-speed next generation broadband,” Governor Pawlenty said.  “Broadband is as important to economic development today as electricity was at the turn of the 20th century – vital to our quality of life and essential for business, government and our communities.”

The broadband principles include universal availability; symmetric speeds to facilitate source-to-source communications; affordability; competition among service providers to increase customer choice and promote innovation; technology platform neutrality; and interoperability.

Look at that last statement (my bolding) and you’ll see why Gov. Pawlenty’s vision statement oughta be President Bush’s! That one paragraph demonstrates that the Governor’s office gets it. My current “broadband” of 5-6 megabits per second down and 384 kilobits per second up doesn’t cut it for anything but web surfing and downloading. Every small business I know in my State (and others) can’t even think of doing anything but minimal email, web surfing or anything else robust since running a server(s) with any demand on it would completely absorb the measly upload speeds our current broadband delivers. It’s worse with DSL.

I worked several years ago with a woman who lived in a loft building in downtown San Francisco. She enjoyed 10 megabits per second symmetrical bandwidth! She laughingly told me about the guy upstairs who had a rack of blade servers as he’d started his dotcom business in his loft apartment. He could since he had the cheap horsepower of blades, open source software he could leverage, and the pipes with enough speed to serve his startup’s offering (knowing full well that to scale it up, he’d eventually move it into a data center).

THAT is the power of bandwidth. Yeah…the lobbyists for Disney, NBC, Microsoft, AT&T and other status quo companies do NOT want huge, symmetrical bandwidth opened up to the masses. Losing even more control will occur when peer-to-peer technologies are even more useful as everyone would have access to cheap, affordable bandwidth. Even more than the internet itself, massive, open, fast pipes would launch true revolutions and disruptions that excite those of us in-the-game and must scare the beejesus out of the status quo.

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About Steve Borsch

Strategist. Learner. Idea Guy. Salesman. Connector of Dots. Friend. Husband & Dad. CEO. Janitor. More here.

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