Although NASA has retired the 30-year-old space shuttle program, that doesn’t mean that Americans have stopped shooting for the moon, literally or figuratively.
The launch of the first privately owned space vehicle, SpaceX’s unmanned “Dragon” capsule, into orbit to dock with the International Space Station has paved the way for a new future in the stars.
American ingenuity is also creating an out-of-this-world experience right here on the ground.
Today we are able to wirelessly download books and magazines to a tablet we can manipulate with our fingertips. We can access Spotify, the world’s largest record store, from anywhere — free.
We can chat with friends and loved ones with crystal clear video and audio quality. Our mobile phones now double as everything from credit cards to house keys.
All of these technologies rely on America’s robust high-speed Internet infrastructure, a network born in part from the kind of bipartisan political agreement — in this case, the decision in 1996 to replace regulation with competition to spawn what would become high-speed data networks — that almost seems alien to us today.
Indeed the loss of this bipartisan consensus-building has, in telecommunications, created a fractured debate where the extremes get the attention, and where consensus on how to build the next phase of broadband revolution is lost.
What’s especially troubling is that these squeaky wheels are trying to drive a debate with — shall we say — a rusty fact checker.
Some of the more extreme critics today claim that Internet service providers have failed to invest in our broadband infrastructure. But in the last 15 years — the period after which a Republican-led Congress and the Clinton administration agreed to overhaul the nation’s communications laws to usher in the broadband Internet era — telephone, cable, wireless and satellite companies have invested over a trillion dollars which is more than nearly any other industry.
Even during the Great Recession, broadband companies have continued to upgrade and improve the Information Superhighway, to the tune of $250 billion since 2008. The networks they built — and continue to expand — reach 95 percent of the country. If there ever was proof positive that taking an affirmative, laissez-faire approach to an industry can encourage investment, this is it.
Other naysayers are arguing that our broadband Internet speeds are too slow and thereby in need of government intervention. But customers in about four out of five American homes today can download data at 100 megabits per second (Mbps) – enough to cue up an entire album in just three seconds.
Fourteen million homes have access to an all-fiber network that can offer 300 Mbps service. And by the end of 2012, almost every home in America will be able to purchase fourth-generation wireless service that can deliver up to 20 Mbps while the user is on the go. Each of these announcements was recently issued and is unlikely to be the last.
Other critics who say our broadband Internet is broken also argue that there is too little competition and, as a result, prices are too high for Internet access. Yet the Internet marketplace is one featuring considerable product differentiation to appeal to consumers of all stripes.
All told, Americans can choose anywhere from six to a dozen wired and wireless Internet providers. Prices range from mobile data for as little as $15 monthly all the way to massive data pipes fit for a business that cost hundreds of dollars.
Several countries in Europe and Asia have experimented with government-funded networks, requirements that broadband Internet providers lease capacity to consumers, and the price controls for which the chicken-little, sky-is-falling critics thirst.
In all cases, consumers have been left with fewer broadband choices, slower speeds (in most countries, DSL is the prevailing mode of access) and a hefty tax bill. Plus, those countries are light years behind the U.S. in terms of communications infrastructure investment: our companies spend two-to-three times more than in second-ranked Japan.
The last thing we should do is jeopardize our position as the world’s leader in broadband network investment with an unnecessary change in course.
Our broadband investment has helped new entrepreneurs find financial success in what the prestigious Progressive Policy Institute calls the “app economy,” which has created half a million jobs and is the key to future productivity. Without investment in broadband, names like Mark Zuckerberg, Reed Hastings and Larry Page would not be known in every U.S. household.
Neither would Elon Musk — the man who made millions inventing PayPal, the revolutionary online payment system, and turned it into SpaceX. By any measure, the Internet is a sturdy launch pad to new frontiers — even the final frontier.
Clifford Young is a professor of public administration at California State University, San Bernardino.
By any measure, the Internet is a sturdy launch pad to new frontiers — even the final frontier.