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U.S. is falling behind in being digitally literate

By Julius Genachowski
Sunday, March 14, 2010; A19

The Internet has transformed America with its power to generate innovation and opportunity and by its ability to connect, inform and entertain us like no technology in history.

But we are not even close to realizing the full potential of high-speed Internet, or "broadband," access. Universally deployed broadband networks can be America's engine for enduring job creation, economic growth and tremendous improvements and savings in education, health care and energy conservation.

This vision of world-leading 21st-century broadband networks and their benefits will not occur spontaneously. While the United States invented the Internet, when it comes to broadband we have fallen behind as other nations have raced ahead. Some studies show us to be as low as 15th in the world in broadband adoption; others have us higher, but none puts us even close to where we need to be.

Our nation is at a high-tech crossroads: Either we commit to creating world-leading broadband networks to make sure that the next waves of innovation and business growth occur here, or we stand pat and watch inventions and jobs migrate to those parts of the world with better, faster and cheaper communications infrastructures.

This, of course, is not a choice -- which is why, this week, at the behest of Congress and the president, the Federal Communications Commission is delivering the first National Broadband Plan: a comprehensive strategy for dramatically improving our broadband networks and extending their benefits to all Americans.

The bad news is that we have a long way to go to meet this generation's great infrastructure challenge:

-- Millions of Americans can't get broadband today. Period. With so many of our daily interactions moving online -- including job listings and job training during the worst recession in decades -- that's unacceptable.

-- Tens of millions of Americans with access to broadband have not signed up. Our surveys show that they aren't connected because they can't afford it, don't know how to use it or aren't aware of its potential benefits.

-- The vast majority of us don't have broadband that's fast enough to take advantage of remote video learning or medical diagnostics, or dozens of other existing and emerging applications.

-- An entrepreneur can't run a small business today without broadband, but 26 percent of rural business sites don't have access to a standard cable modem, and more than 70 percent of small businesses have little or no mobile broadband.

-- Just as mobile broadband becomes ever more important, we face a looming shortage of spectrum -- the electromagnetic oxygen on which our mobile networks run.

The starting point to solve these problems is a set of goals that are ambitious but achievable with a national commitment.

-- First, to ensure opportunity, every American should have access to all essential broadband services at home.

-- Second, to ensure that we have the advanced networks we need to empower American businesses, we must substantially increase the capabilities of our networks. This means driving toward one gigabit to every community in America, through libraries, schools and community colleges; and creating the world's largest market for affordable, very high-speed broadband -- a "100 Squared" initiative of affordable 100 megabits per second to 100 million households -- so that inventors around the world will flock to our platform.

-- Third, to ensure that we capture the next wave of change, we must lead the world in the speed and reach of our mobile networks.

-- Fourth, to ensure the safety of Americans, every first responder must have access to a nationwide, wireless, interoperable broadband public safety network.

With smart policies, we can enable and accelerate the private investment necessary to achieve this future. If we have the political will, we can reclaim the licensed and unlicensed spectrum our wireless networks need to thrive. We can transform the multibillion-dollar fund that supports the universal availability of traditional voice communication to one that supports universal broadband. We can promote competition, for example, by removing barriers, encouraging investment and empowering consumers with the information they need to make the market work. And we can offer every American the tools to be digitally literate -- a prerequisite to participating in the new economy.

If we adopt these and other good ideas, we can harness the power of a technology with the greatest potential to advance our economic and social welfare since the advent of electricity.

Imagine a world where children in low-income neighborhoods can have access in their classrooms to the best teachers in the world and access at home to the most up-to-date e-textbooks. Picture a time when diabetic seniors living in rural areas without ready access to doctors can get nutrition counseling on home computers.

History teaches us that nations that lead technological revolutions reap enormous rewards. We can lead the revolution in wired and wireless broadband. But the moment to act is now.

The writer is chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

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