A Broadband ‘Sputnik Moment’

President Obama has said our
generation’s Sputnik moment is upon
us. He likened our recent economic
setbacks to a key moment in
October 1957, when Americans
saw our scientific leadership
in the world fall from first
to second as a small beeping
sphere sped through the night
sky. I strongly agree. And I see
broadband as a key element in
our response to Sputnik 2.

After the first Sputnik
launch, Americans did what
we do best. We rallied the
nation’s resources around a
comprehensive strategy to regain our
technological leadership. As President
Obama said, “Once we put our minds
to it, once we got focused, once we got
unified, not only did we surpass the
Soviets, we developed new American
technologies, industries, and jobs.”

So the question before us today: How
will we respond positively to our new
Sputnik moment, which is largely of
our own creation?

The president has called for rebuilding
on a new and stronger foundation
for economic growth. He touted investment
in infrastructure as a key element
for our reaching our goal.

We need to evaluate the progress
American Recovery and Reinvestment
Act grantees make in bringing
broadband service to the underserved
and helping them make the most of it.
These projects could be models for
connecting other communities —
and could offer insight on what government’s
role should be in broadband
deployment. Although that spending
was temporary, it provided the biggest
federal investment in high-speed
Internet deployment ever. ASR Analytics
has been picked to evaluate
National Telecommunications and Infrastructure
projects and help Americans understand
the economic and social impact
of these federal and state investments.
We should ensure that the evaluation
focuses not only on
the quality of infrastructure
development, but
also tracks the adoption
of broadband. Evaluation
can help us understand
which applications
communities gravitate towards
first, why other applications
might not be
used as much, and what
support services truly
aid with the adoption of

At the Benton Foundation, we’re
tracking the progress of the administration,Congress and the FCC on theirimplementation of the National BroadbandPlan. The heart of the plan is modernization
of the $8 billion-plus federal
Universal Service Fund (USF), which
is more annually than all of ARRA’s
broadband funding.
The current federal universal service
programs were created in the aftermath
of the Telecom Act of 1996 — at a time
when only 23% of Americans had dialup
Internet access at home, and virtually
no one had broadband.

The current USF
was not designed to support broadband
directly, other than for schools, libraries
and rural health care providers.

In 2010, the federal USF is projected
to make total outlays of $8.7 billion
through the four programs identified below. Our agenda — in 2011 and
2012 — must be to shift from supporting
legacy telephone networks to highcapacity
broadband networks.

Our moment is now to revitalize the
foundation of our economy and to regain
our global competitive edge.

Charles Benton is chairman and CEO
of the Benton Foundation. Read his full blog post at http://benton.org/node/46746.